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Myanmar nullifies temporary ID cards after nationalist protest

Muslim Rohingya people ina camp for Internally Displaced Persons on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar's western Rakhine state ©Soe Than Win (AFP/File)

February 11, 2015

Myanmar Wednesday said identity cards for people without full citizenship, including Muslim Rohingya, will expire within weeks, snatching away voting rights handed to them just a day earlier after nationalist protests at the move.

The Rohingya along with hundreds of thousands of people in mainly ethnic minority border areas, who hold the documents ostensibly as part of a process of applying for citizenship, will see their ID cards expire at the end of March, according to a statement from the office of President Thein Sein late Wednesday.

"Those who are holding temporary identity cards must give back the expired registration documents,” the statement said, in a move that effectively overrides a clause giving them the right to vote in a constitutional referendum in a bill enacted with presidential approval on Tuesday.

The dramatic about-face comes after dozens of protesters gathered in the commercial hub Yangon Wednesday to call on the government not to allow people without full citizenship to vote in the proposed referendum.

The issue has ignited indignation among some Buddhists in restive Rakhine state, where around half a million Rohingya Muslims are estimated to hold white cards.

"If those given the right to vote don't pay respect Myanmar's flag, then we will have a failure of sovereignty," said Nyi Nyi Maung, a Rakhine Buddhist who had joined monks and other protesters in Yangon.

In a statement on Facebook, president's office director Zaw Htay said as of the end of March, white cards would be "illegal", meaning that holder's voting rights were "automatically cancelled".

Violence between Buddhists and Muslims tore through Rakhine in 2012, leaving more than 200 dead and 140,000 trapped in makeshift displacement camps, mainly stateless Rohingya.

The unrest sparked outbreaks of religious violence across the Buddhist-majority country, overshadowing its democratic transition and coinciding with the rising prominence of nationalist monks.

- Right to vote -

The mooted referendum would be triggered by proposals for major charter amendments approved by parliament, although no such plans have yet been announced.

Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition is expected to win landmark elections in October or November this year, if they are free and fair. Legislators will choose a new president after the poll.

The Nobel laureate has campaigned to change the constitution, which sets aside a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military.

It also bars her from becoming president because of a clause excluding those with foreign close family members from top office. Her late husband and two sons are British.

White card holders were able to vote in the 2010 elections, a move seen as benefiting the army-backed party in the much-criticised vote, which ushered in the country's quasi-civilian government.

Rohingya MP Shwe Maung, whose constituency lies in isolated northern Rakhine, said some 1.5 million people in Myanmar were thought to hold some level of temporary citizenship.

Most of these people are in the many ethnic minority border regions, and around 500,000 are Rohingya.

"This is important because it is the right of a citizen to vote," he told AFP, adding that the issue had become controversial only after the 2012 violence.

Many of Myanmar's roughly 1.3 million Rohingya are stateless and subject to a tangle of restrictions that affect everything from their ability to travel and work to the permitted size of their families.

Referred to by the government as "Bengali", they are largely seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even if many can trace their ancestry in the country back for generations.

The United Nations in December urged Myanmar to grant the Rohingya access to citizenship.

The issue was at the heart of protests against UN special rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee which saw the country's most high-profile nationalist monk label her a "whore" in a tirade that drew international condemnation.

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