The 14-year-old school girl lives on Ma San Par, an island situated in the Mergui archipelago, in southeast Myanmar. By speed boat, the trip from the mainland takes 45 minutes. For most of the islanders, travelling with slower boats, the journey takes several hours. Their lives are quite isolated, away from health and higher education services on the mainland.
Since 2012, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the Myanmar Ministry of Immigration, Labour and Populations (MoLIP) have disseminated information on the importance of civil documentation, provided counselling, and distributed ID cards to people in Myanmar’s south-eastern region. By June 2017, NRC and the local authorities had distributed a total of 500,000 ID cards, issued either directly or through information- and counselling services.
“11 million people in Myanmar do not have a valid ID card,” says José Arraiza, NRC’s legal assistance adviser in Myanmar.
Without an official ID card, people cannot access medical services, open a bank account, go to school or travel anywhere, and they can be arrested at any time.
“We are basically giving them the right to have rights,” says Arraiza, “The challenge is to improve access to legal identity rights to people who have recently been displaced and minority groups, among others.”
Zin Hnin Phyu speaks fast, explaining that she should have been in 6th grade by now, but last year her parents did not have the money to pay for her schooling. While all her friends went to class, she spent her time doing nothing. She definitely prefers going to school.
“I want to become a doctor,” she says, well aware that she’ll need the identity card to be able to go to university.
“I’m very happy to get the card. I will give it to my mother. She’ll keep it safe for me.”
No card, no rights
The people who don’t have ID cards live in areas affected by conflict, they are displaced, live in isolated places, and overall lack protection. Some have lived in areas controlled by armed groups, where the government has not reached them. Others belong to minorities which cannot easily access ID cards because of additional legal obstacles. By liaising with government authorities and armed groups, NRC contributes to confidence building and to strengthen the protection of people and their access to services.
In Myanmar’s north-eastern Kachin state, fighting over the last years has displaced thousands, increasing the number of people displaced in the country.
Roi Taung, 12, had to flee her home when the fighting reached her village.
“I was having dinner with my family when we heard the gunshots. I was scared, and I couldn’t move. My parents packed in a hurry, and we left.”
Roi Taung lives in a camp for internally displaced people in Bhamo, a city in southern Kachin. She does not have an ID card, and it worries her.
“I have to go back to my hometown to receive the ID card, but there is still fighting there, so I cannot go back. Our house has been burnt to the ground.”
She wants to have the card so that one day she can go to university.
“If I have an ID card I can prove that I am a citizen of this country,” she says.
By issuing ID cards, NRC secures legal identity rights and better protection for displaced people and other groups affected by conflict and isolation. We are working for people in Myanmar to have access to the rights to school, work, property and freedom of movement, so that they can live safe and independent lives.
After fifty years of military rule, Myanmar welcomed the promise of a new era of democracy and reform with its first civilian elections in 2015. However, the newly formed government still faces similar issues as before, as rule of law and democratic governance is often lacking.
Known as the “longest running civil war,” Myanmar has been tormented by internal conflicts led by ethnic groups struggling for representation since the country’s independence in 1948. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced in the decades-long conflict. Every day, people are being displaced by violence, leaving everything they own behind. Years of fighting have forced many to flee over and over again.
Since late 2011, the government has signed ceasefire deals with the majority of ethnic armed groups in the country, and in October 2015, the government negotiated a nationwide ceasefire agreement with eight of the largest ethnic armed groups. Still, some groups have refused to sign the agreement, and they continue negotiating with the government.
In addition to conflict, disasters and, increasingly climate change are forcing people in Myanmar to flee their homes.
In Myanmar, NRC helps displaced people and people affected by conflict through building disaster-resistant schools and wells, providing civil documentation, youth education and camp coordination. We have been working in the country since 2008 and all of our activities are managed from seven field offices within the Southeast Region, Kachin and Rakhine States.
In south-east Myanmar, NRC is working together with the authorities to give people information about the importance of civil documentation and ID cards and, together with the Ministry of Immigration, distributing ID-cards to those who do not have it. With the ID-card, they have access to secondary education and public services such medical services and the possibility of opening a bank account. People who travel without an ID-card in Myanmar risk being arrested or harassed, and through issuing the cards to those who does not have them, NRC improves freedom of movement and the overall protection environment. By liaising with ethnic non state actors and government officials, we contribute to building confidence in the peace process.
The ID project is funded by: NMFA, Swiss Development Cooperation, Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, European Union, UNHCR and SIDA.