Minorities racially profiled and targeted for extortion by junta police in Rakhine State capital 

Members of minority communities in the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe are being regularly subjected to extortion by junta police and local military council staff in what victims have described as institutionalised racism. 

A 23-year-old Rohingya man working as a driver of a three-wheeled motorised taxi known as a tuk-tuk told Myanmar Now that he was repeatedly being singled out, stopped and fined exorbitantly by police for lacking licensing. 

The vocation of driving the small vehicles was adopted widely among Rohingya residents of Sittwe in 2020, when members of the persecuted community—many of whom were forced into internally displaced persons camps by previous waves of military violence—were granted freedom of movement around the city. 

It has also made them targets of authorities manning the streets of the city. 

“We are being discriminated against because we are Muslims,” the Rohingya driver said. “Muslim people are afraid to speak up, and they threaten us more because we are afraid. This fills me with resentment.”

Describing how he had been stopped by the police, traffic police and junta municipal staff at various intersections, traffic lights, pagodas and markets over the last year, he said at times, he was asked to pay up to 100,000 kyat (US$48). 

“I earn about 10,000 kyat ($4.80) per day as a driver. I can pocket around 7,000 kyat ($3.35) after deducting the cost of petrol. How can I afford to pay a 100,000-kyat fine?” the man said. “They said they would take the tuk-tuk if I couldn’t pay. I couldn’t talk back to them.”

He explained that he borrowed money to pay the bribes required to reclaim his seized vehicle in the days that followed.

The driver also noted that passengers in his taxi were also targeted for extortion if they too were identified by the authorities as Rohingya. 

Another Rohingya resident of Sittwe said that members of his community have been asked by these same authorities to pay small bribes, known colloquially as “tea money,” if they failed to show cards issued by ward administrators to Sittwe residents in August 2020 that allowed movement outside the home during Covid-19 lockdowns.

Rohingya people were disproportionately required to show their red and yellow cards to the authorities to engage in activities such as buying food in the market. 

“We were born and grew up in this country, but we don’t have any human rights,” he said. 

A red card for permission to travel to clinics or hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic, and a yellow card for permission to go the market ((Myanmar Now)

The cards in question expired in November 2022 but the practice of presenting them to military authorities is still reportedly being enforced amongst the Rohingya. Two cards were issued for each household, meaning that if more than two residents were found to be outside the home, they were typically fined 1,000 to 2,000 kyat ($0.50-$2.00) in “tea money.”

A 21-year-old resident of Sittwe who is a Burmese Hindu and also works as a tuk-tuk driver, said that he too had been targeted by the junta as the Rohingya have been, attributing this discrimination to his skin colour. 

On February 15, he described an incident in which he drove to Bu May ward—a largely Rohingya area—to buy chickens, and was detained by traffic police after parking his vehicle. The police in question demanded money from him. 

“I stopped my tuk-tuk. The traffic policeman walked up to me and removed my key,” the driver explained. “He asked, ‘why are you trying to hit me?’ [referencing the positioning of the vehicle]. In fact, I had parked very far away from him. I had to give him 15,000 kyat ($7.15).”

He estimated that half his earnings from around three trips around the capital city are confiscated daily by authorities including the traffic police.

“We are driving in fear. We can’t drive on the main roads. We have to avoid the places they are patrolling,” the man explained. 

Another 23-year-old driver who is also a Burmese Hindu said he was detained by traffic police along with his Rohingya passengers three times over the past year, and each time forced to pay bribes to ensure his release.

For having vehicle registration but not a driver’s licence, he said he was asked to pay 150,000 or 200,000 kyat in cash, and that the fine would be “higher if [he] went to the [road transportation department] office.”

“There is no law that says we have to pay 150,000 ($71.50) or 200,000 kyat ($95) for not having a driving licence,” the second driver said. “I asked him what the standard fine was, and he threatened me and told me to come to the office. I went to the office the next day, and I told them I didn’t have that amount of money. Then, they asked me to buy a bottle of alcohol that cost over 30,000 kyat, and I bought it.”

A clock tower in the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe, seen in March this year, with tuk-tuks and motorcycles seen passing the landmark (Myanmar Now)

In the Sittwe checkpoints manned by a combined force of municipal officers, police and soldiers, local drivers say that “everyone” is stopped, including ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. 

However, a 25-year-old Rakhine driver confirmed to Myanmar Now that the junta singled out minorities, including the Rohingya, for extortion.

“I have all the necessary licences, but I am sometimes interrogated,” he explained. “They bully the Rakhine people too, but it is worse for the minorities. It’s not good to discriminate like that when everyone is trying to earn a living.” 

Sittwe police station and municipal committee did not answer Myanmar Now’s phone calls for comment on the reports of discrimination and extortion. 

More than 1 million Rohingya people from Rakhine State live in refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh, some 700,000 of whom were forced by genocidal Myanmar military operations to flee their homes in 2017. 

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