Burma’s National ID Cards grant relative freedom of travel, allow voting in national elections, access to official schools. Denied for decades basic government services, villagers in Karen State view Burma’s National ID Card scheme with a mix of confusion, indifference, and even fear. Some of the Karen interviewed for this story, referred to the government issued cards as ‘Burma ID cards’, indicative of how they distrust the central government after over six decades of civil war. “I got an ID card many years ago, because I couldn’t travel without one. Authorities would ask for money if they stopped you and you didn’t have one, and if you didn’t pay you would be in trouble.” Naw Thae Nay, a villager, said. “We lived in a mountainous area on the border, but needed the ID cards whenever we decided to travel to town. When I had the ID card, I felt like there is more freedom for me to travel and more freedom to get into a job. Also, if we don’t have ID card our kids will not be allowed to study in government schools.” But applying for an ID card raises it’s own concerns.
Naw Thae Nay was worried about being branded as Burmese and losing her Karen identity, “We don’t want our identity to be changed. We want to be identified as Karen. We don’t want to be addressed as ‘Daw or U’ (A direct translation in Burmese is Aunty and Uncle, but it is actually a prefix for an older man or woman) – we want to be addressed in Karen terms as ‘Saw or Naw’ (Sgaw Karen for Mr or Mrs),” she said.
Naw Thae Nay said that many villagers in her area shared this fear,“I don’t think many people have a Burma ID card in this area. I think this was because they think that if they obtain one, they will become simply Burmese and lose their identity as an ethnic Karen.”
Because of their use in voting, travel, education and access to healthcare, ID cards are part of a rapidly growing global trend. According to Global Research, an organization specializing in research on globalization patterns, ID cards have made “alarming” progress across the globe to becoming a universal reality for citizens. Figures in a 2009 report by the group state that over 2.2 billion people, or 33% of the world’s population, have been issued with ‘smart’ electronic ID cards. With over 900 million having fingerprint systems. Burma’s system, though of an earlier generation and more rudimentary, is nevertheless part of this trend. The group estimated that perhaps around 85% of the world’s population have these ID cards.