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In Rohingya Camp, Tensions Mount over Plan to Revoke ID Cards

Thousands of Arakanese Buddhists protest against allowing white card holders to vote in the upcoming general elections, in Sittwe February 15, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

By Andrew RC Marshall 
February 17, 2015

THAE CHAUNG, Arakan State — Burma’s decision to revoke temporary identification cards for minorities is raising tensions among its 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims, who have effectively been disenfranchised just days after parliament approved a law affirming their right to vote in a referendum.

Last week, the government of the Buddhist-majority nation announced that the temporary identification, known as white cards, would be revoked on May 31.

The people who hold them are mostly Rohingya, a much resented minority in Burma, where many people consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

In Thae Chaung, a squalid fishing village in western Burma that has become a settlement for thousands of Rohingya, the decision was still to fully sink in, but was being met with a mixture of defiance, mistrust and resignation.

“If the government wants to take my white card, what can I do?” said Minara, 23, a housewife who gave only one name. “I’ll just have to give it to them.”

Mohammad Ayub, 28, said he would only surrender his white card if granted the same citizenship rights enjoyed by “all other ethnic minorities.” He doubted this would ever happen.

“I don’t trust the government,” said Ayub, who like many men in Thae Chaung is jobless.

The village is a 15-minute drive from Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, where most of the country’s Rohingya live.

Violence between Rohingya and ethnic Arakanese Buddhists in 2012 killed at least 200 people and made 140,000 homeless, mostly Rohingya.

Experts warned the hostility to the government plan could result in renewed violence.

“It is unlikely that white card holders in displacement camps will give these up voluntarily when it is not clear whether they will get any form of ID in return,” said Richard Horsey, a Rangoon-based independent political analyst.

“Any attempts to enforce the order to surrender the cards could spark violence,” he said.

As well as the right to vote, white cards also entitle Rohingya to health and education services, but with certain restraints: their movements are severely restricted, and white card holders are barred from civil service jobs and some degree courses.

It also represents the link to political life for Burma’s minorities.

The country’s Parliament voted earlier in the month to grant white card holders the vote in a possible constitutional referendum, paving the way for their participation in a general election later this year.

But Buddhists protested against the plan in Rangoon, the biggest city in Burma, arguing many of the white-card holders were illegal aliens. Shortly after the protest, the government announced it would revoke the white cards.


Another 400,000 people outside of Arakan State, mostly of Chinese and Indian descent, also hold white cards.

The government said on Feb. 11 the cards will be revoked in a “fair and transparent manner” by local officials, but didn’t explain what would replace them.

A pilot project to verify the citizenship of Rohingya and other Muslims has foundered on Arakanese objections and the government’s insistence that Rohingya identify themselves as “Bengali.”

Rohingya reject the term because it suggests they are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, when many have lived in Burma for generations.

Few Rohingya are Burmese citizens, but most carry white cards, officially known as “temporary registration certificates.” This enabled them to vote in a 2010 general election, which was rigged by the military junta which then ruled Burma.

The Rohingya currently have five representatives in the national and state legislatures.

Disenfranchising white card holders in Arakan State could be “incendiary,” the Brussels-based think tank Crisis Group warned in an Oct. 2014 report.

“It would be hard for [Rohingya] to avoid the conclusion that politics had failed them, which could prompt civil disobedience or even organized violence,” said the report.

Arakanese Buddhists also mistrust the government. On Sunday, they staged a large protest in Sittwe, a city purged of its sizable Rohingya population after the 2012 violence.

Led by hundreds of Buddhist monks, the crowd waved placards reading “Never accept white card” and shouted “Anyone who allows foreigners to vote is our enemy.”

Thar Htun Oo, 75, a retired businessman who joined the protest, said he still didn’t believe white cards would be revoked. “The government is lying,” he said.

Another protester, Saw Thein Mya, 55, believed Rohingya might lose their cards but somehow retain voting rights.

“That’s why were protesting today,” she said. “We can’t depend on the government.”

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