Taslima feared the day would come. It was SweTinSit, an annual population census conducted by officials of the Government of Myanmar in the state of Rakáin, in the north of the country. Military, police and Customs officials would be everywhere, to collect data from the Rohingya families – write down birth dates of the children, photograph family members and write down their names. It was in 2016, when tensions in the state of Rakáin increased.
For many Rohingya like Taslima and others in their village of Tula Toli, the SweTinSit (or “Map Registration Review” in Burmese) was a mandatory and intense, and always unpredictable, audit. If someone was absent during SweTinSit, their relatives could be subjected to extortion, imprisonment, arbitrary taxes and even worse. The previous year, a relative of Taslima was raped by an official police officer.
At SweTinSit 2016, Taslima's brother-in-law went to work outside the village to pay a debt. Fearing that he would be arrested for his brother's absence, Taslima's husband disappeared the three days it took to complete the census in Tula Toli. Taslima paid a fine of 300,000 kyats (US $ 208) for her brother-in-law and another fine of 200,000 kyats (US $ 138) for her husband.
The officials warned her that if her husband did not return while the census lasted, there would be more consequences. In the early morning of the next day, Taslima says that four men, including the village president, Aung Ko Sein, entered his cabin and raped her in front of her two children.
From SweTinSit in Myanmar to ‘smart cards’ in Bangladesh
In 2018, I met Taslima and interviewed her, along with thousands of other Rohingya Muslims who had fled from the Rakáin state to Bangladesh.
At that time, the lists and photographs taken during SweTinSit were the only form of official documentation of the Government of Myanmar that many had. The authorities do not grant citizenship to Rohingya born in the territory of Myanmar. In the systems and rhetoric of government documentation, the Rohingya are referred to as “Bengalis,” which mistakenly suggests they are migrants from Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh, SweTinSit's photos and lists have become portable memories of loved ones, thousands of whom died in so-called “settlement operations”. These documents are also potentially the strongest claim of citizenship that Rohingya refugees have, as many records have decades.
When they arrived at the Balukhali camp in Bangladesh, Taslima learned that their relatives had to register with the camp authorities to receive food. To register, they told Taslima and their relatives that they should send their information, fingerprints and iris scanning that would be collected and recorded in biometric “smart cards”.
In conversations with others in the field, Taslima and her husband learned of different opinions of smart cards. But concerns increased, and opposition to smart cards sprouted and spread. Many refugees refused to believe that the ID card was only a practical necessity for management and distribution, which had no social or political significance.
On Twitter, the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, called the smart card a “personal document that is also a tangible sign of dignity and hope.” But many Rohingya disagree. At the center of their suspicions is the fact that the ID cards did not include the word “Rohingya”, although the database for smart IDs does include that information. The card itself describes the Rohingya headlines as “citizens of Myanmar forcibly displaced.”
What's in a name?
One might think that “citizens of Myanmar” would be favorable for many Rohingya, who for decades have fought against the refusal of the Government of Myanmar to grant them nationality.
Nay San Lwin, a prominent Rohingya activist and coordinator of the Rohinyá Libres Coalition group, told me:
It is not standard practice (to include one's ethnicity on an ID card). But the people in the camps felt very strongly about their ethnic name given their experience of being labeled “Bengali” in Myanmar. They wanted to secure their Rohingya identity on a card finally. They thought it would amount to some international recognition of Rohingya ethnic identity.
It is not the usual practice (include ethnicity in the identification card). But people in the countryside have strong feelings about their ethnic names given their experience of being called “Bengali” in Myanmar. They wanted to secure their identity Rohinyá in a card finally. They thought it would amount to an international recognition of the Rohingya ethnic identity.
And for many, the decision not to include the term “Rohingya” indicated greater collaboration between the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar.
After registration, who can access the data?
For many, a more worrying aspect of the process was that the database registration form included the option of giving personal information to the Myanmar authorities. That suggested that the biometric smart card information would be delivered to Myanmar for repatriation, an objective of the Government of Bangladesh for more than four decades.
Many feared that smart card data would be integrated into the Myanmar Government National Verification Card system, a failed attempt (different from the SweTinSit process) to register Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The registration form included a question: “When did you arrive in Myanmar and by what route?”, Whose answer was almost always completed. For the Rohingya, the cards of the National Verification Card system marked them as foreigners and deprived them of their legitimate status as citizens of Myanmar. They even called it “genocide card.” Except for those who were forced, the Rohingya refused to register for the card.
Six months after the arrival in August 2017 of more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, Myanmar sent its Minister of Social Welfare, Dr. Win Myat Aye, to the Bangladeshi camps to “convince” refugees to return. His delegation said that the National Verification Cards would help verify the identity of refugees on their return to Myanmar. He promised that the owners would have freedom of movement, access to health and education, and authorization to cross the border.
With the introduction of smart ID cards, activists feared that the data in their ID cards would again allow Myanmar to propose the much-detested National Verification Card, unless this time the United Nations entities conferred legitimacy on them.
A group within the field, called the Rohinyá Arakán Society for Peace and Human Rights, strongly opposed the smart card and organized some mobilizations against it. The organization received pressure from the authorities, so the protests were not widespread. They were canceled in December 2018. The group leader, Mohibullah, kept up appearances when he said the name Rohinyá would be included in the process, but it was not a victory for the protesters – the name had been in the databases since 2017, when the certificates were presented. To date, the name Rohinyá still does not appear in the smart card.
They beat refugees for refusing to register smart card
The smart card registration process has been distressing for many refugees. In 2018, I began to hear about various types of “irregularities”, coercion and beatings. In interviews I conducted, witnesses report incidents when collecting information, and beatings by officials.
On October 10, 2018, several women from the Musini camp recorded video interviews in a state of distress describing their harsh treatment, which includes beatings, of the camp authorities of the previous day. Nay San Lwin, from the Rohinyá Libre Coalition, decided to take the videos and show them personally to the Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, Shahidul Haque. He complained that the refugees were beaten for refusing the smart card.
Shortly after, Nay San Lwin's entry to the camps was prevented, and Bangladeshi intelligence agencies began monitoring his movements. Abul Kalam, head of the country office of the Commissioner for Refugee Aid and Repatriation, issued a rapid denial of violence.
Taslima's family received their smart cards in July 2019, long after the agitation against the cards ceased. Taslima says he felt some fear when they collected their biometric data.
“I had to queue a whole day,” he said. “They told us that they would retain the portions and that we would not stay in the fields. We had no choice. ”
When I told her that her smart card would have information about her for years, maybe decades, she seemed confused.
“They will know everything about us,” he said. “They never told us anything. They also took a picture of us – like in Burma. ”