Rohingya refugees climb up a hill after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Rohingya refugees climb up a hill after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, in 2017. Photo: Reuters / Danish Siddiqui

Last month, the International Court of Justice moved to dismiss initial objections by the Myanmar authorities in the ongoing case over their 2017 genocidal campaign that resulted in a mass exodus of Rohingya from their homeland. The campaign resulted in a major humanitarian crisis and the largest refugee settlement in the world.

This news is justifiably making international headlines. Yet there is another dimension to the military’s ethnic-cleaning campaign against the Rohingya that has received somewhat less attention, and that is the pernicious use of identity documents as a deliberate tactic of state-based exclusion.

To understand this aspect, it is important briefly to overview the history of the Rohingya’s relationship with the state apparatus in post-independence Burma, now known as Myanmar.

The 1950s and ’60s saw a certain level of civic representation of the Rohingya in the country. They were issued National Registration Cards as full citizens, and passports for those Rohingya who traveled abroad. 

Beginning in the 1970s, the Rohingya in Rakhine state were subject to a series of military offensives that led to the first wave of refugees fleeing the region. The 1982 Citizenship Law delisted the Rohingya as a state-recognized ethnicity, leaving them stateless almost overnight.

At this point, the Rohingya found their previous identity documents annulled and they were now issued “white cards” that represented a sort of temporary status requiring verification of their citizenship. These cards were part of a deliberate policy to leave their legal and residency status in their homeland in limbo.

In 2015, these white cards were also canceled and seized back. In their place, the Rohingya requiring some measure of status were told to apply for the new National Verification Cards (NVCs). Not only were these cards difficult to obtain, requiring documentary evidence of three generations of lineage linking the cardholder to the area they live in, but the card itself was a downgrade from even the previous white cards that were earlier issued.

The NVCs mandated that the Rohingya categorize themselves as “Bengali,” thus renouncing their own claim of ethnic collective identity and subscribing to the propaganda narrative of being the offspring of Bengali laborers brought into the region during British colonial rule. The card itself is a confirmation of their status as a foreigner applying for citizenship, not even someone whose citizenship’s status requires verification, as was the case earlier.

As expected, when the NVCs were first introduced, they faced pushback from the Rohingya, who clearly saw them as a form of ethnic delegitimization that had been the hallmark of state policy for the past few decades.

Since 2017, a portion of the remaining Rohingya in the country have been forced to adopt this NVC system under oppressive circumstances or face continual threats of detention or blocked access to education and health care. 

The use of identity cards slowly and subtly to destroy the Rohingya as a people complements the Myanmar regime’s use of military force.

While the regime will use this identity-issuing tactic to take the sting away from international pressure over the horrific conditions on the ground for Rohingya in the country, the truth is more malign. It is an aspect of the conflict that needs to be highlighted more given the sad reality of this genocide occurring in eyes of the international community in the 21st century. 

Saqib Sheikh

Saqib Sheikh serves as project director of the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya worldwide, as well as adviser/co-founder for the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, a network of 14 refugee communities based in Malaysia. He received his master's in communication from Purdue University in Indiana. He currently lectures on media and communication at Sunway University in Malaysia.