YANGON — A Muslim woman living in an internally displaced persons’ camp in Rakhine State has been sentenced to a year in prison, for attempting to travel to Yangon without permission, an indication of the travel restrictions placed on Muslims living in the state.
Ma Hla Phyu, 26, was arrested on May 23 in Taungup Township, Rakhine State. She had been attempting to travel from the Kyauktalone IDP camp in Kyaukphyu Township to the commercial capital, U Shwe Hla Aung, the Kyaukphyu township administrator told Frontier by telephone on May 31.
Following a swift trial, she has been found guilty under Section 6(3) of the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act, which prohibits false representation, loan or forgery of a registration card. She has been sentenced to one year in Thandwe Prison with hard labour.
Hla Phyu had been living with her family at the Kyauktalone IDP camp since violence flared in Rakhine State in 2012, leaving hundreds of thousands — including Rohingya and Kaman, the latter among Myanmar’s official “national races” — living in camps with limited access to healthcare, education and livelihoods.
Shwe Hla Aung said that Hla Phyu worked as a teacher at the camp, and collected a government salary at the end of the school year.
“She did not apply for travel permission as far as I know,” said Shwe Hla Aung.
He said that people from the camp could only travel to Yangon if they provided information about where they were staying in the commercial capital.
While the Kaman hold National Registration Cards, which are issued to citizens, Hla Phyu’s family is not Kaman, he said, so she carried a National Verification Card.
The government has insisted that Muslims in Rakhine State who do not have citizenship should apply for a NVC. If they qualify, they can begin the process of applying for citizenship.
However, U Phyu Chay, a camp leader at Kyauktalone said that many people in Rakhine reject the process because they are “not illegal immigrants”.
“We are ethnic people. We do not want this process,” he said.
He said Hla Phyu was arrested because she was Muslim. “That is the only reason they arrested her,” he told Frontier.
He said that she had applied twice, including in January, for permission to travel to Yangon but the application had been rejected on both occasions. She had wanted to travel to the commercial capital to find work so she could send money home to her family, he said.
“She was not given a reason for why she was not allowed to travel,” Phyu Chay said of her earlier attempts.
Hla Phyu completed her high school studies before the 2012 violence, he added. Since finishing high school she has been hoping to study Burmese language at university.
Her younger sister, Ma Hla Hla Phyu, 19, said that her parents didn’t know she had left the camp because they were fasting for Ramadan.
“We found out about her arrest from the township administrator. I want to see my sister as soon as possible,” Hla Hla Phyu told Frontier, adding that the administrator has said he will help the family visit her at Thandwe.
Hla Phyu’s cause has garnered support from internet users.
Dr Min Swe, who has more than 5,000 followers on Facebook, blamed the arrest on the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs.
“It is only the Home Affairs [ministry] that creates such kind of systematic problem,” he wrote.
Immigration officials in Nay Pyi Taw and Kyaukphyu refused to comment on the case when contacted by Frontier.