19 October 2019

Greased palms and discrimination at the passport office

Applying for a passport ought to be straightforward for any citizen, but those who are of mixed ancestry or belong to minority faiths are humiliated and extorted by officials.
Collected
Aspiring travellers wait outside the passport office in Yangon's Yankin Township on June 3 - (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

It was a busy Monday morning at the passport office on the corner of Sayar San and Industry 1 roads in Yangon’s Yankin Township. At least 1,000 people thronged the office, which is under the Ministry of Home Affairs, to apply for passports or have them renewed. It wasn’t like this five years ago, when I applied for my first passport, Myanmar-based popular news and views magazine the Frontier report said.

This time, I had to squeeze into the sweat-soaked crowd to reach the front gate, where two police officers asked to see our citizenship ID card and wanted to know the purpose of our visit.

After being admitted to the office, I repeated the reason for my visit to a policewoman at a check-in counter and handed her my card. She had a book in which she was recording the name, race and religion of every visitor to the office. For my race she wrote “Bengali”, following from what was written on my card.

Like my parents and grandparents, I was born in Myanmar and hold a pink-coloured Citizenship Scrutiny Card (often referred to as an “NRC”), which entitles me to the full rights of citizenship. But when I applied for my citizenship card, a process that took three years, a township immigration officer designated my race as “Bengali”. The officer said that, because I am a Muslim, my “race” could be one of only two things, “Bengali” or “Cholia”.

But I am not Bengali: my ancestors were Pathans from India, and my family had lived in Mawlamyine, formerly called Moulmein, since colonial times. I wondered what gave this officer the right to arbitrarily determine my ethnicity. As I was to discover, the way our identities are officially recorded affects how the bureaucracy treats us later on in our lives.

After a security check, I entered a room within the passport office where about 10 queues had formed at different booths. At each booth, officers were interviewing applicants before signing documents qualifying them for new passports. Because I’m not a Buddhist and don’t belong to one of the 135 ethnic groups the government considers native to Myanmar, I had to join a queue with other “mixed blood” people to be interviewed by the chief officer.

It was a struggle to keep my place in the queue because people kept trying to push in. Most of them were irritated because they had waited in one of the other lines only to be told when they finally reached the counter that they were in the wrong queue.

After waiting for about two hours it was my turn to be admitted to the office of the chief officer. A secretary collected my application documents, which included my citizenship card, household registration and a copy of my expiring passport, and passed them to the chief officer for signing. Like everyone else, I had to hand over an informal fee of K5,000.

The secretary noticed that I had recently turned 18 and so needed to renew my citizenship card. I hadn’t done this because the process is so time-consuming that my passport would have expired before it was over. Speaking aggressively, the secretary said this was a problem. Pointing to the description of my race and religion on my citizenship card, he said, “We don’t even need to sign; you already have this on your card,” implying that my designation as a Bengali Muslim gave them sufficient grounds to refuse my application, even though I had previously held a passport.

It seemed inappropriate for the officer to draw attention to my religious identity, which would have nothing to do with a passport renewal application if Myanmar was a country that respected freedom of belief.

I was eventually told to provide a signed pro-forma document that confirmed I had turned 18. The same documents were visible on other desks in the office, suggesting my problem was a common one.

My documents, once signed, were checked twice by officers at other desks. I then had to take them to another section of the building, where they were signed yet again before I could pay the official renewal fee of K25,000.

Then it was time for the photo. These are taken in curtained booths on two floors of the passport office and about 1,000 people were waiting on each floor. I waited more than three hours to have my photo taken. I had heard that “tea money” of about K5,000 was expected for the service and gave that amount to one of two officers at a desk.

After checking my papers the officer said, “We need K10,000 for your case.” What did he mean by my “case”? Arguing might have hurt the chances of renewing my passport, so I mutely handed over the extra K5,000.

My photo was taken, my citizenship card, household registration and other documents were returned, and I was given a receipt to present when I collected my new passport in 10 days’ time.

I returned to the office on the due date thinking that the discriminatory treatment was behind me, but I was to be disappointed. I was told that my application was still under “investigation” and to return in about two months. I asked how much it might cost to have the investigation expedited, but the offer of a bribe was rejected.

I don’t understand the need for an investigation to be undertaken by the same office that scrutinised and approved me when I first applied for a passport.

It distresses me that a person in a position of authority can violate my rights as a citizen and a human being because my beliefs are different to those of the majority in Myanmar. When I encounter situations like this, I feel I am a second-class citizen.

Kamruzzaman


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