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Is Myanmar playing politics with the White Cards?

Dr. Habib Siddiqui
RB Article
April 9, 2015

In early February this year, the Myanmar parliament approved a proposal by President Thein Sein to allow people with temporary identification “white cards,” most of whom were Rohingya, to vote on a referendum on constitutional amendments to the country’s junta-backed constitution, which could come as early as May. Obviously, as most keen observers would tell you the government measure was a face-saving one under international pressure and never meant in intent and purpose. 

As it has become almost a routine and comical in Myanmar these days, led by ultra-racist and bigoted monks, hundreds of Buddhists took to the streets in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon on February 11 to protest the government’s decision to allow people without citizenship, including Rohingya, to take part in the referendum. Such protest marches are widely suspected of being stage managed and done at the behest of the policy makers within Thein Sein's government. 

In the Arakan (Rakhine) state capital of Sittwe (formerly Akyab), the fascist RNDP leaders who had hitherto played a major role in recent genocidal campaigns against the minority Rohingya community were quick to organize protest marches demanding disenfranchisement of the Rohingya. Copycatting the tactics of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (SA) Brown Shirts, the racist Buddhist crowd - led by hundreds of Buddhist monks, waved placards reading "Never accept white card" and shouted "Anyone who allows foreigners to vote is our enemy."

As expected, Thein Sein government quickly reversed the decision disenfranchising millions of White Card holders. This oft-practiced tactics allows Thein Sein to kill two birds with a single stone. It helps to sell his image as a reform minded moderate ruler to the outside world who is also mindful of public reaction and support in his own country. 

More problematic, however, was the NLD's (the party led by Suu Kyi) objection to such voting rights of the White Card holders. Through such objections in the parliament, she and her party, once again proved what an evil politician she has become and how chauvinist her party is. It is surely no friend of the disadvantaged and persecuted people inside this den of hatred called Myanmar. By the way, with foreign born British children and husband (now dead), she still has not given up on her dream to become the president of the country, and is willing to sit in the lap of the military leaders, or so it seems, to please the ruling regime and dance at its tunes. 

White Cards were initially issued beginning in 1993 as a temporary measure pending a process to verify residents’ claims to citizenship against criteria set out in Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law. All the White Card holders, which includes millions of Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities such as the Kokang and Wa, and people of Chinese and Indian descent are now being confiscated by (or forced to surrender to) the state. The White cards were accepted by Myanmar’s former military junta for the 2010 elections, which saw Thein Sein’s civilian-military hybrid government take power from the regime. The Rohingya community currently has five representatives in the national and state legislatures.

Many of the older citizens who were born under the British rule of Burma one time had the National Registration Card bearing their Burmese citizenship where the Rohingya name was clearly written down. [See the attached picture of U Kyaw Hla Aung, a lawyer whom the Amnesty International called a prisoner of conscience, holding his NRC, a document from the 1950s that proves that he has lived in Myanmar for a long time. He has been imprisoned multiple times for defending the rights of his people. He now lives in a bamboo hut in a camp for internally displaced people near Sittwe.]

But after Ne Win came to power all such documents were confiscated, and many were only given temporary cards towards national identification. And now with the White Cards confiscated, and their homes and neighborhoods already destroyed, and forced to live in concentration camps, most Rohingyas are naturally very apprehensive, and so are the human right activists. Many Rohingya families have lost everything, including documents like the White Cards, which they possessed in ethnic cleansing drives by the Rakhines in recent years. 

It is unclear whether those who surrendered their cards would be able to begin the citizenship process, because they do not or may not have any other form of national identification. Government reps, however, say that those who give up their white cards receive a “receipt” to prove that they had a temporary identity card and can begin the citizenship verification process in June. Previous experiences of targeted minorities like the Rohingya people have been rather unpleasant, which adds to their dilemma about surrendering such cards. 

A pilot project to verify the citizenship of Rohingya and other Muslims has foundered on Rakhine objections and the government's insistence that the Rohingyas identify themselves as "Bengali." Rohingya reject the term because it suggests they are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, when their tie to Arakan is older than most Rakhines. 

The published reports suggest that in the Arakan state alone some 10,000 White Cards were confiscated by the authorities or surrendered by the Rohingyas every day since February, and at this rate, the government will confiscate all those cards by the end of May. 

Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, said in a panel discussion at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 18 that the expiration of the temporary white cards beginning in March 31, 2015 and surrender thereof by May 31, 2015 raised more uncertainties about the status of the Rohingya and further increased their vulnerability. Lee also warned that Myanmar was backsliding because of continued discriminatory restrictions on the freedom of movement of Muslim internally displaced persons, which also infringed on other basic fundamental rights, the news release said. 

Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a research and advocacy group that focuses on the northern part of Rakhine state, denounced the citizenship verification process and the cancellation of white cards, because it could lead to a total exclusion of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the news release said. 

She believes that the withdrawal of the white cards goes beyond denial of the right to vote and risks leaving the Rohingya without any legal documentation and the right to reside in Myanmar.

Chris Lewa and Yanghee Lee are not alone in such criticisms of the Myanmar regime. I its October 2014 report, the Brussels-based think tank Crisis Group warned that disenfranchising white card holders in Rakhine State could be "incendiary". "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.

Only time would prove whether the Myanmar government is sincere with the citizenship process for the stateless Rohingya or the current process is only a smokescreen to ultimately expel them from the land of their ancestors. I hope that the Myanmar government is smart enough to reject the second option which is a sure recipe for creating an international crisis that would threaten the security of the entire region for decades.

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