YANGON — A stateless woman from a camp for displaced Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State has been sentenced under immigration charges to one year in prison, two days after being arrested while travelling to Yangon without a permit, according to a police officer from Taungup in Rakhine, who spoke anonymously.
Twenty-six-year-old Ma Hla Phyu, who taught at a school in the camp in Kyaukphyu Township, holds a National Verification Card (NVC) — a document issued since 2015 to stateless Muslims in Rakhine State while their citizenship is under scrutiny.
Despite applying twice, she had not received the travel authorisation required for NVC-holders to travel within or outside Rakhine State, despite recent statements by the Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement U Win Myat Aye that NVC-holders could travel “freely.”
After an uproar from nationalists and opposition parties, Labour, Immigration and Population Minister U Thein Swe later clarified that NVC-holders still required permits for travel.
Since 2012, Hla Phyu had been confined with her family in Kyauktalone Camp, after communal violence displaced Muslims from Kyaukphyu town.
Hla Phyu was arrested on 23 May at a road checkpoint in Taungup Township, on the border between Rakhine State and Bago Region in the Arakan mountain range, while travelling to Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital.
Without being granted access to a lawyer or family members, she was sentenced two days later by Taungup township court to one year in jail with hard labour under section six of the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act, which entails a maximum two-year prison sentence, or a fine, for forging or misrepresenting one’s registration card.
Afterwards, she was sent to Thandwe Prison, also in Rakhine, according to U Phyu Chay, lead administrator on the Kyauktalone camp management committee. A photograph of Hla Phyu’s NVC has since circulated on social media.
Chief of Kyaukphyu’s immigration department U Tin Htoo told Myanmar Now Hla Phyu had been charged because she left the camp without a travel permit.
“We have to apply for travel permits in this state. Sometimes, the application has to be forwarded to the state government. They will check whether the address is correct and issue a travel permit,” he said.
Hla Phyu had applied to the Rakhine State immigration office for a travel permit, via the district office, in 2017 and again in February this year. Both times, she received no response, according to camp administrator Phyu Chay.
“Her application for a travel permit has been pending for a year. It still hasn’t been approved. That’s why she left,” he said, adding, “She was sentenced before we could hire a lawyer.”
“They guaranteed us that NVCs-holders could travel freely. That is why we hold the cards,” said Phyu Chay, who also holds an NVC.
Hla Phyu’s 22-year-old sister Ma Hla Hla Phyu told Myanmar Now that, before violence broke out in October 2012, the family had lived in an urban ward in the west of Kyaukphyu. Her mother and father had lived there all their lives. Their home was destroyed in the rioting and authorities moved the two parents, the two sisters and the two brothers to Kyauktalone camp, outside of town.
Just before the riots, Hla Phyu had passed her end-of-school matriculation exam and was looking forward to enrolling in university to study Burmese literature. In the camp, she became one of 18 teachers at a school for 239 children, the camp administrator said. The family depended on her salary of around 100,000 kyats (US$74) per month.
The sister said Hla Phyu had left the camp around 6 am on 23 May “without saying a word.” The family was not informed of the arrest, and they had not been granted permission to see her since.
“We can’t see her yet. Father has already asked for permission from the camp supervisor. But we cannot leave the camp,” the sister said.
Commenting on the case, Ko Thet Zin, editor-in-chief of current affairs journal Yanae Khit, told Myanmar Now that the National League for Democracy government needs to negotiate with the military over the status of displaced persons camps in Rakhine.
He thought such negotiations could pre-empt attacks from opposition parties, such as the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, which has opposed granting NVC-holders any freedom of movement on national security grounds.
“The current case is humiliating for the NLD. Daw Aung San Su Kyi and the government will lose face. If the case isn’t resolved, it could grow bigger and attract international disapproval,” he said.
Kyauktalone camp administrator Phyu Chay said two women were arrested in 2017 for leaving the camp without travel permits.
The government has committed to closing camps across Rakhine State where Muslims have been held since anti-Muslim riots in 2012 and 2013, in line with recommendations from an advisory commission led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The government says Rohingya Muslim refugees returning to Myanmar under a repatriation deal signed with Bangladesh—after close to 700,000 mostly stateless Muslims fled a military crackdown sparked by Muslim militant attacks—would be given NVCs, after which citizenship applications would be processed within five months. However, many Muslim reject NVCs as a ploy to withhold citizenship indefinitely.