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‘They are not foreigners’

Myanmar's parliament convenes in the capital of Nay Pyi Taw on January 21, 2015. Photo: NLD

By Tim McLaughlin
January 27, 2015

Referendum: MPs spurn President over ban on white card holders

Lawmakers have rejected a recommendation from President U Thein Sein that would allow temporary citizens to vote in the constitutional referendum scheduled for May. 

The decision by the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Bill Committee on January 21 is the latest move to limit the voting and political assembly rights of temporary citizens, known as white card holders, whose ability to participate in politics has been severely curbed since last year. 

The move will have the greatest impact in Rakhine State, where most of the country’s estimated 1 million white card holders live. The majority are Muslims, who were given white cards by the government beginning in the early 1990s. 

White card holders were able to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum, as well as the 2010 general election and 2012 by-elections. 

They were listed as eligible voters in a draft referendum bill submitted to the lower house of parliament in November by a member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. 

An MP from the opposition National League for Democracy, Daw Khin San Hlaing, submitted a proposal to exclude white card holders from the vote and this version of the draft was approved by both houses of parliament. 

In late December, President U Thein Sein returned the bill to parliament with a recommendation that white card holders be reinstated on the list of eligible voters. This recommendation was rejected by the Bill Committee, barring white card holders from voting in May. 

U Ko Ni, the chairman of Laurel Law Firm and a legal advisor to the NLD on constitutional reform, criticised the decision, saying it could set a precedent for white card holders to lose more voting rights. 

The decision, he said, could be used as an excuse to remove white card holders from Myanmar’s three other voting laws, which stipulate who can vote for members of the upper and lower houses of the Union parliament and regional and state parliaments.

Parliamentarians could now argue that these laws need to have white card holders removed to be consistent with the national referendum bill, once it is signed into law, potentially setting off a series of dramatic amendments to voting legislation.

“They may be citizens, they are not foreigners, so I think they need to get the right to vote,”U Ko Ni said.

Daw Khin San Hlaing used a similar argument to that outlined by U Ko Ni in defending her decision to recommend the disenfranchisement of white card holders from the referendum bill in November. She said the law needed to be in line with preexisting legislation and cited amendments to the Political Parties Registration Law that took effect last year.

The Political Parties Registration Law was amended to prevent white card holders from forming and joining political parties. The amendment was proposed by the Rakhine National Party and was quietly signed into law by U Thein Sein in late September.

USDP Pyithu Hluttaw MP U Shwe Maung, a Rohingya who represents Buthidaung in Rakhine State, said that he feared the moves against white card holders could see them barred from voting in the general election due in November.

About 95 percent of U Shwe Maung’s constituents would be unable to participate in the referendum with white card holders and those holding pre-1982 citizenship cards ineligible to vote. The move, he said, was a sign of the rising influence of the RNP, Rakhine Buddhist activists and nationalist monks, who have lobbied to exclude white card holders from politics.

The decision to remove white card holders also raises serious questions about the logistics of the May vote.

Senior members of the Union Election Commission say they have not yet considered how the names of white card holders would be eliminated from voter lists and have even raised doubts about whether the referendum will take place.

The UEC is creating new voter lists for the general election. The four-step process began in November and the UEC plans to have the new voter lists finished by the last week of July, two months after the referendum on constitutional reform is due to take place.

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