“I paid 600,000 Myanmar kyats (USD 214~286) in total to renew my passport,” said a 27-year-old Yangon resident who went through several fraudulent processes to renew her passport in November 2022.
Andy* never expected that it would cost a six-figure amount to renew her passport or would take a 3-month long period. The 27-year-old Yangon resident got her passport in 2018 which cost her less than 35,000 Myanmar kyats (USD 13~17) in total and took only 10 days to collect her passport.
Andy was one of the many people Mohinga Matters had spoken to who shared similar experiences after the Myanmar Passport Issuance Board changed its system exactly a year before.
Roller Coaster Ride of Junta’s Passport Renewal Process
In March 2022, Myanmar Passport Issuance Board announced that the system will be changed to allow applicants to enter the office only after obtaining an appointment through the online booking system starting on March 21. It was reportedly an attempt to curb extremely long queues in front of the passport offices and also to stop the agents from charging an unreasonable amount from the applicants to reserve places in the queue. However, many warned that online passport issuance could lead to more fraud occurring, and some believed that this is an attempt to control many Myanmar people from getting passports and leaving the country.
Back in September, Khit Thit Media reported that junta leader Min Aung Hlaing issued two directives during the confidential Security, Stability, and Rule of Law Committee Meeting 5/2022 on August 18, ordering to restrict throngs of youths departing the country. The directive ordered a stricter mandate surrounding the departure process and for the young workers departing to sign a contract, which includes how much percentage of their earnings abroad to be sent back to the country. It was never confirmed if the workers departing the country were asked to sign it, but the stricter mandate surrounding the departure process for sure meant controlling the issuance of the passports.
A year later, the passport renewal process is still in shambles. On December 5, Myanmar Passport Issuance Board announced that the online booking system would be temporarily suspended, and on January 2, all passport offices across Myanmar, Yangon, and 17 others were announced to be closed for the unforeseeable future. This disrupted many people’s chances to find jobs, pursue higher education, relocate to safer places, and seek medical help abroad.
In true junta fashion, some passports were still being issued and granted even after the announcement. According to an article by Mizzima News on January 15, some migrant workers under an arrangement with the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies, pilgrims to the site of Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in India, and people seeking medical trips were allowed to apply for passports/renewal.
People, who were in a rush to depart for jobs, decided to sign up for a pilgrim package that costs from USD 800 to 1,250. There were also reports of submitting requests to the Ministry of Home Affairs to expedite the passport issuance process.
Andy’s 600,000-MMK-Worth Passport
In less than five years, the passport renewal process in Myanmar deteriorated in the most extreme way. To be precise, less than two years after the military staged a coup in Myanmar, the cost of the passport application process skyrocketed 12 times the original costs, and the duration became directly proportional to the amount of money you could offer to the so-called agents who help with passport application processes.
“When I started my passport renewal process in October 2022, I was told I would need to pay a Fastrack fee of 70,000 Myanmar kyats (USD 25~33) to the agent to receive a QR code for a queue if I want my passport back before December,” Andy told Mohinga Matters. She added, “But I was told that I could go on my own to the Passport Office and continued on with the process.”
In reality, it was further from the truth. The agent returned the money back to Andy and told her to find another agent. The next agent Andy found told her that they offer Fastrack special home service in which the agent will do everything for the applicant including coming to take an ID photo at home.
“This time, I was told I would need to pay 400,000 Myanmar kyats (USD 143~190) upfront. So, I did because it was a referral from a trusted contact,” said Andy. But sometime in November, Andy was informed that the “system and service” were on hold because some of the staff from the passport office were being arrested due to numerous under-the-table deals.
“I never got my money back in full from the second agent because they claimed the process had already begun, and they only transferred back half,” said Andy.
Andy was in a hurry to visit her family exiled in Thailand so, in a third attempt, she got in contact with police from the passport office in Bago town via her friend. And she was asked to show up at the passport office in Bago at 5 a.m. in the morning.
“Honestly, apart from having to travel to Bago early in the morning, the entire process was smooth. I got my passport back in 10 days just like how the process was before the Passport Office changed its system in March 2022. But I had to pay 450,000 Myanmar kyats (USD161~214) for the entire process,” said Andy.
“It’s incredibly messed up that everything is going backward in Myanmar,” Andy added.
Living in limbo
For some citizens living abroad, the passport renewal process has also been a nightmarish experience after the coup.
Esther*, a researcher who had to wait five months to get back her passport said, “It’s frustrating how they [Myanmar embassies abroad] made their own citizens’ lives much harder to survive in foreign countries instead of protecting us.”
Esther has lived in two foreign countries and experienced first-hand herself and heard many passport renewal horror stories of the Myanmar diaspora. She explained that normally, the Myanmar embassies take the most two weeks to process passport renewal.
After the coup, Myanmar living abroad had to wait five to six months to get their passports back. Some who hold “PV” passports for “visitors”, were told the passport printing machines were out of ink, but the passport issuance for other types of passport holders was told to come in for renewal. Some who are studying abroad on scholarship with “PV type”, were told the passports could only be renewed if the students can show proof that they will continue studying long-term in the country of residence after finishing their scholarship program. Some students ended up enrolling in language schools with their hard-earned money to get proof of passport renewal. Some students were denied passport renewals and told to go back to Myanmar with embassy-issued temporary travel documents and do renewals back in Myanmar.
In Thailand, the reports of authorities cracking down on Myanmar living with no documents were widespread in 2022 with many Myanmar spilling over the border to take refuge. And yet, the Myanmar consulate and embassy in Thailand continued to disregard the Myanmar people’s requests for passport renewal. Throughout 2022, some “PV” passport holders were turned away from renewing their passports with the embassy citing reasons of passport printing machines being broken while “PJ” passports for “workers” were in process. Some passport holders had to live in limbo for months with no documents because the consulate issued an appointment date three months away and took away the old passport.
Better System in 2023?
Passport horror stories are countless and with different variations of plotlines, but one thing that remained constant, based on people who spoke with Mohinga Matters, is that junta, junta-controlled administration and embassies continued to make lives harder for Myanmar people everywhere.
Recently, Myanmar Passport Issuance Board announced a new online booking system to be available for people starting from February 24. The announcement said the system will only be used for Yangon Passport Issuing Office and operations at the other 17 offices across the country will remain the same. Passport applications are said to be easier because there will be no time limit on online bookings made through the www.passport.gov.mm website and applicants are required to pay 35,000 Myanmar kyats (USD13~17) at the same time.
Just the next day, the Passport office announced that the online booking was suspended again to fix its system on February 25. According to news reports, there were over 8,500
applicants on the first day, and it jammed up the system. The website resumed operating on March 1, but one can’t predict anything ahead under the control of the military after all.
*the use of pseudonyms for safety reasons