A presidential challenge to the politics of exclusion?
|Myanmar President U Thein Sein (C) shakes hand with officials as he arrives at Sittwe Airport in Rakhine State on December 26, 2014. Photo: Nyunt Win/EPA|
By Tim McLaughlin
January 9, 2015
President U Thein Sein has recommended that the temporary citizens known as white card holders be allowed to vote in the constitutional referendum proposed for May, after an opposition MP moved to disenfranchise them from the process last year.
The President’s recommendation could enable about one million white card holders to vote on whether the 2008 Constitution should be amended, in a move certain to be welcomed by temporary citizens after their political rights were increasingly threatened in 2014.
The biggest impact would be felt in Rakhine State where most white card holders live. Most are Muslims who have been issued white cards by the government since the early 1990s.
A version of the draft referendum bill submitted to the lower house on November 20 by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) gave white card holders the right to vote in the referendum.
This was opposed by National League for Democracy MP Daw Khin San Hlaing, whose draft version proposing that that white card holders be disenfranchised from the vote was accepted by the Lower House later that day after it debated the issue.
However, confusion followed the decision when the draft published in state-controlled newspapers on November 26 listed white card holders as being among those eligible to vote.
The published draft was nearly identical to the 2008 referendum bill, which included white card holders. Article 11 of the bill said: “All citizens, naturalized citizens, associate citizens and the temporary card holders, who are 18 years old, have the right to vote on the referendum day and these people must be included in the voter lists.”
White card holders were also allowed to vote in the 2010 general election and 2012 by-elections.
An MP who attended the debate said the proposal to disenfranchise white card holders had indeed been approved and the wrong version of the draft was published by the state-controlled newspapers.
Daw Khin San Hlaing’s revised version of the draft was then tabled in the Upper House, where it was approved before being sent to the President’s Office.
President U Thein Sein returned the draft to parliament in late December with the recommendation that white card holders be allowed to vote and the bill will be discussed when parliament reconvenes later this month.
The decision was slammed by Dr Aye Maung, Chariman of the Rakhine National Party (RNP), who on December 22 said that letting white card holders vote went against the constitution.
“The white card issue concerns not only Bengalis and Rakhine people but the entire nation,” he said.
Daw Khin San Hlaing said that the decision to disenfranchise white card holders from the referendum vote was not a reflection of her personal politics or those of the NLD, but an attempt to keep the draft consistent with other laws.
“It is not mine and my party’s decision. We didn’t say whether white card holders should vote or not,” Daw Khin San Hlaing said.
“It is just to point out that the law must be in line [with other laws].”
Daw Khin San Hlaing cited the Political Parties Registration Law as an example of the legislation that needed to be taken into consideration when drafting the referendum bill.
The Political Parties Registration Law, signed by President U Thein Sein in late September, bans white card holders from forming political parties and holding key positions within political parties.
The bill was one of three submitted by the RNP that targeted the voting and political rights of white card holders. The decision to deny voting rights to white card holders has challenged the NLD’s inclusive image and cast further doubt on chairperson Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s credentials as a human rights defender.
The Nobel laureate has been sharply criticised for her reluctance to speak out more forcefully on behalf of Muslims in Rakhine State, particularly the Rohingya.
USDP MP U Shwe Maung, who represents Buthidaung constituency and is one of three Rohingya in parliament, said the move to disenfranchise white card holders was a reflection of the increased political influence of Rakhine politicians and activists as well as hardline monks since the communal violence in the state in 2012.
He estimated that about 95 percent of his constituency would not be eligible to vote if white card holders and those given citizenship cards before 1982 were barred from going to the polls in May.
The move to cut white card holders from the vote was a sign that the rights of Rakhine Muslims were being further threatened, U Shwe Maung said.
“In my concept of democracy, before the majority rules, before the majority decides, the majority should give rights to minorities,” he said.
President U Thein Sein’s recommendation may pave the way for white card holders to participate in the referendum, but the logistics of the vote could also bolster the temporary citizens’ chances of voicing their opinion on constitutional reform.
Analysts have privately expressed scepticism over whether it would be possible to hold the referendum without white card holders because it would mean compiling new voters lists without them in just five month.
The Union Election Commission has said that it would take until July to compile updated voter lists to be used in the November general election. It appears highly unlikely that the process could be completed two months ahead of schedule to meet the referendum deadline.
Pushing the referendum back would risk a vote during the monsoon season, when reaching remote parts of the country would be extremely difficult.
For white card holders in Rakhine State, the uncertainty surrounding the issue has created some dismay.
However, Rohingya white card holders interviewed recently by Mizzima in isolated IDP camps said they were largely unaware of the details of the referendum.
“We did not know about the referendum and the coming election as most of our time has been spent at the camp,” said U Aung Lwin, a Rohingya who lives in the Thaung Paw IDP camp in Myebon Township.
“Nobody has told us about the referendum and constitution. We are struggling to survive and to be able to live freely as citizens.”
– Additional reporting by Phyu Phyu Zin and Soe Than Lynn