Burma’s National ID Cards grant relative freedom of travel, allow voting in national elections, access to official schools. Denied for decades basic government services, villagers in Karen State view Burma’s National ID Card scheme with a mix of confusion, indifference, and even fear.
Some of the Karen interviewed for this story, referred to the government issued cards as ‘Burma ID cards’, indicative of how they distrust the central government after over six decades of civil war.
“I got an ID card many years ago, because I couldn’t travel without one. Authorities would ask for money if they stopped you and you didn’t have one, and if you didn’t pay you would be in trouble.” Naw Thae Nay, a villager, said.
“We lived in a mountainous area on the border, but needed the ID cards whenever we decided to travel to town. When I had the ID card, I felt like there is more freedom for me to travel and more freedom to get into a job. Also, if we don’t have ID card our kids will not be allowed to study in government schools.”
But applying for an ID card raises it’s own concerns. Naw Thae Nay was worried about being branded as Burmese and losing her Karen identity, “We don’t want our identity to be changed. We want to be identified as Karen. We don’t want to be addressed as ‘Daw or U’ (A direct translation in Burmese is Aunty and Uncle, but it is actually a prefix for an older man or woman) – we want to be addressed in Karen terms as ‘Saw or Naw’ (Sgaw Karen for Mr or Mrs),” she said.
Naw Thae Nay said that many villagers in her area shared this fear,“I don’t think many people have a Burma ID card in this area. I think this was because they think that if they obtain one, they will become simply Burmese and lose their identity as an ethnic Karen.”
National Identification – A Global Trend
Because of their use in voting, travel, education and access to healthcare, ID cards are part of a rapidly growing global trend. According to Global Research, an organization specializing in research on globalization patterns, ID cards have made “alarming” progress across the globe to becoming a universal reality for citizens. Figures in a 2009 report by the group state that over 2.2 billion people, or 33% of the world’s population, have been issued with ‘smart’ electronic ID cards. With over 900 million having fingerprint systems. Burma’s system, though of an earlier generation and more rudimentary, is nevertheless part of this trend. The group estimated that perhaps around 85% of the world’s population have these ID cards.
Burma’s National Registration Cards, also called citizenship scrutiny cards, are handed out to Burmese nationals by the Ministry of Immigration and Population (MOIP) Immigration and National Registration Department. The cards include the person’s photo, signature and fingerprint – they also include religion.
A committee was formed three years ago to issue the ID cards and household registration certificates under the ‘Moe Pwint’ Project, which aimed to accelerate delivery of the cards to Burma’s people, who are scantily documented. Karen villagers first started to receive ID cards in 2012 under the ‘Moe Pwint’ project.
Naw Thae Nay didn’t vote in the 2010 election, that propelled former general and current President, Thein Sein, into power, saying it was a ‘lie’. “I didn’t bother thinking about casting vote in 2010 election. We have experienced years of sham politics. But if things improve by the 2015 election, and ethnic parties compete, I will vote for our own ethnic candidates,” she said.
She was considering getting ID cards for her children. “In our family, our children are still young and they haven’t got ID card yet. It’s only my husband and I who have ID cards. I think when the situation gets better, we will go and get ID cards for all my children.”
Citizenship Law ‘Needs Replacement’
International rights groups criticize Burma’s citizenship law as failing to comply with international human rights standards. In it’s 2014 annual world report, Human Rights Watch called the law “draconian.” Introduced in 1982, Burma’s citizenship law fails to recognize at least 850,000 people in the country – mainly Rohingya Muslims – leaving them stateless, according to UNHCR figures.
At least parts of Burma’s government agree with HRW’s sentiment. Tin Chil, director at MOIP was quoted in The Irrawaddy late last year as saying that the “current citizenship law was issued according to the Myanmar Citizenship Law, which was enacted in 1982 and really needs a replacement.”
Burma’s government, however, has rejected calls to reform the law. President Thein Sein’s spokesman was quoted in the Irrawaddy in November last year as saying that Burma’s citizenship law was a “sovereign right” to be determined by the government alone,“Any person ineligible under the law can’t be citizen, no matter who is pressuring” the government, he said.
According to MOIP figures listed in The Irrawaddy, around 487,000 household registration certificates and approximately 3.5 million National Registration Cards were issued through May of last year, under the ‘Moe Pwint’ Project.
Getting The Message
For many Karen villagers, especially those displaced by decades of civil war, the idea of a National ID Card is a new concept that needs to be explained. “We’ve never had ID card’s because there was no government authority giving it to us in our area. We just were focused on living and surviving,” Naw Bae Htoo, a villager in Karen State said.
Naw Bae Htoo understood that the ID cards could ease freedom of travel, but was unaware of the other benefits, such as a child’s access to official education and voting rights. “I’ve lived my whole life without ID cards, why is it important now?” she questioned.
Saw Polo, however, has seen the importance of having ID firsthand.
“I was once arrested by the Burma Army after they asked for my ID card and, not having one, I couldn’t present it. So they accused me of being a member of an armed group and arrested me.” After his experience, Saw Polo got an ID card. Now he is in the process of getting his whole family ID cards. Three family members, including his oldest son, already have them.
Saw Polo lives in an IDP camp with his family, including his 5 children. “I have 5 children, but only my sons have ID cards. My daughters don’t have it because we are now living in an IDP camp, so it is hard for them to leave the camp and try and get one. Everyone should have a citizen ID card as evidence of belonging to the nation,” he said.
Naw Mya Htay expressed confusion about the rights conferred to a citizen of Burma via a National ID Card and said she only knew of its importance as a travel document. “A Citizen ID card gives us rights but I don’t know what rights we have.”