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Rohingya stripped of voting rights ahead of key Myanmar election

A young Rohingya man shows reporters his white card ID at Thae Chaung camp in Sittwe township in March (Photo by Will Baxter)

By John Zaw
June 24, 2015

First electoral rolls are missing names of former 'white-card' holders, as promised

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims who cast ballots in previous elections were left off the voting lists published in Rakhine state this week.

The move was expected after the Myanmar government earlier this year stripped Rohingyas of temporary “white-card” identity documents that previously allowed them to vote, though did not permit them to access state services or other rights granted to citizens. The fact that Rohingya were allowed to vote in the 2010 election has remained a point of contention with majority Rakhine. 

Thurein Htut, officer in-charge of Rakhine state’s election commission, said the former white-card holders are not included on the electoral rolls.

“Former white-card holders don’t have a right to vote in the upcoming general election according to the law despite being able to vote in the 2010 election. So they are not mentioned on the voting lists,” Thurein Htut told on Wednesday.

Among those removed from the voting rolls are those with citizenship and naturalized citizen identification cards from IDP camps, admitted Thurein Htut, who said the local government was working to have their names listed on the next ones published.

The Myanmar government revoked the white cards in February and set a deadline of May 31 for cardholders — predominantly stateless Muslims who identify their ethnicity as Rohingya — to turn them in as part of a national citizenship program.

There are around 700,000 white-card holders in Rakhine state and some 400,000 white cards have been collected as of the deadline, according to the government.

Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya community leader from an IDP camp near Sittwe, said the move effectively disenfranchises hundreds of thousands who have lived in the country for generations.

“My father and I worked as government servants but we are regarded as foreigners. We have lived here for generations but we are yet to get national citizenship cards. And my two daughters who are former white-card holders will lose the right to vote in the election,” Kyaw Hla Aung told on Wednesday.

On February 2, parliament granted white-card holders the right to vote in a constitutional referendum. However, widespread protests by Buddhist nationalists and radical monks led to the decision to revoke them.

White-card holders were allowed to vote in the 2010 elections that ushered in the country’s quasi-civilian government.

In spite of the government’s bowing to local pressure, Soe Naing from the Rakhine Social Network in the state capital Sittwe said there were concerns that officials would quietly allow green-card holders on the rolls. 

“We don’t fully trust the government despite it not including former white-card holders on the list. We fear the government will give green-card holder’s the right to vote so we are still keeping an eye on this,” Soe Naing told on Wednesday. Earlier this month, officials began issuing new identity verification cards, called “green cards”, to Rohingya in Rakhine state.

The government and the Buddhist Rakhine community do not recognize Rohingya as one of the country’s official ethnic groups, and instead require them to identify as ‘Bengali’ because they are considered illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

An independent non-governmental group based in Brussels, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in April that: “disenfranchisement of most Muslim votes in Rakhine severs the last link that many Muslims in Rakhine state feel they have with political life, with potentially serious implications for medium-term stability in that region”.

The ICG also warned that in Rakhine state and parts of central Myanmar, there have been serious inter-communal and inter-religious tensions in recent years, which could resurface in the “politically charged atmosphere of an election”.

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