Immigration authorities in the Shan State township of Kengtung arrested 51 ethnic Rakhine migrant workers late last month and ordered them to leave the area. The Rakhine National Network (RNN), an organization that claims to represent the interests of Rakhine Buddhists, has accused Shan State authorities of “racial discrimination” that “may harm national unity”.
The workers were ordered to leave their bus when they reached Kengtung on Aug. 24, and their ID cards were taken from them, said Khaing Thiha, one of the workers, at a press conference in Yangon on Aug. 30. They were given no explanation for their detention other than that the orders came from a local military commander. They were then taken to the Shan State capital of Taunggyi, where their ID cards were returned, and they were told to return to Rakhine State.
Instead of returning to Rakhine State, the workers travelled to Yangon, where they joined with RNN to lobby for freedom of movement.
“We are saddened by this action because we have no chance to travel freely in the country, even though we are citizens. This is why we held a press conference to expose the matter,” said worker Ye Thiha.
RNN member Thein Shwe said: “Arresting innocent people and not allowing them to travel freely is racial discrimination. This can harm national unity, which is one of the three main national causes adopted by the government. I hereby demand the government allow freedom to travel and not show racial discrimination.”
RNN’s advocacy for the civil rights of Rakhine Buddhists stands in stark contrast to its previous activities. In 2016, the group lobbied to have the 4,500 Muslim residents of the Aung Mingalar section of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, expelled from the city.
“We are concerned that the number of Muslims in the quarter has grown, and some have been living there illegally, so we raised it to the state government,” RNN member Soe Naing told UCAN at the time.
“We don’t want a conflict between the two communities, so we want them to be expelled and relocated outside of the city,” Soe Naing said.
RNN lobbied the Myanmar government to revoke the right of Rohingya to vote in a constitutional referendum planned for May 2015. The referendum was indefinitely postponed after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had already been stripped of the right to vote.
Eleven has reported that the 51 workers are now staying at a monastery in Mingaladon Township, where the Yangon Region Rakhine Ethnic Affairs Ministry and Rakhine charity organizations are trying to find jobs for them.