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Northern Rakhine facing major political shake-up

By Kayleigh Long
September 15, 2015

In 2010, Rafi, 25, voted for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. At the time he was a white-card holder. Two years later he fled northern Rakhine State.

A woman puts voter lists on display in Maungdaw township. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)

“I voted for USDP because I thought they had the right intentions and would bring the people’s voice to parliament,” he said, noting that Rohingya Muslims in the state had voted in all elections up to 2010. “We don’t have rights. We can’t move, we can’t really access education, we can’t enter a profession. And now we have lost the right to vote. It is very shameful.”

The government’s decision this year to nullify and revoke the temporary identity documents, known as white cards, held by many Rohingya, along with the announcement that white card holders could no longer vote, seek office, or hold membership in a political party, means the Muslim-majority north of Rakhine State is in line for a major political shake-up.

In 2010 some 150,000 of Rakhine State’s Muslim population in the northern township of Buthidaung exercised their right to vote. When Myanmar goes to the polls in November, short of a last-minute registration rush, that number could be closer to 10.

In the lead-up to the 2010 election, the Union Solidarity and Development Party knew that to shut out their Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) opponents they had to rely on sheer force of numbers, so they sought out alliances with influential figures in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships in a bid to sway the Muslim vote.

Many like Rafi saw the military-backed party as the neutral option in a community riven by ethnic and religious divides.

“There were smaller independent parties, and the National Democratic Party for Development [which had Muslim candidates]. During the campaign we tried to persuade people that we wanted to show neutrality and that we don’t discriminate. We were voting for the community and for our rights. In northern Rakhine, we [Buddhists and Muslims] were born there. We grew up together. We didn’t want it to be Rakhine or Rohingya - we all want our rights,” said Rafi.

A numbers game

The total population of Rakhine State is estimated at 3,188,807. “Estimated” because 2,098,807 was the total enumerated state-wide in Myanmar’s controversial 2014 census.

Prior to the census, the government had promised that people would be able to nominate an ethnic identity other than one of the 135 so-called national races by selecting the code 914 for “other”, followed by the nomenclature of their choosing. The government broke this promise shortly before enumeration got underway, citing security concerns following vocal protests from nationalist groups.

Those who would have self-identified as “Rohingya” were told they had to use the term “Bengali”, or not be counted. As a result, large numbers of people did not participate; entire villages were all but skipped over, and data collection was incomplete.

A total of 1.09 million people are estimated to have been omitted in Sittwe, Mrauk-Oo and Maungdaw administrative districts, the latter comprised of Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships.

Judging by the census data, the total population, urban and rural, of Buthidaung is a mere 55,545.

Township officials put the actual population at somewhere above 400,000. They believe this comprises some 360,000 identifying as Rohingya, 40,000 ethnic Rakhine, and a small number of hill-tribe minorities such as the Mro, Kami, Marma and others, some of whom also lack the proper documentation for casting a vote.

U Shwe Maung, a self-identifying Rohingya who won the seat of Buthidaung for the USDP in 2010, suggests that these population estimates may not take into account the numbers of ethnic Rakhine who have left the state as migrant workers, in Myanmar and abroad. Similarly, he says, the exodus-by-boat phenomenon is also likely to have significantly reduced the Rohingya community. “There may be 100,000 people fewer than in 2010,” he said.

Chasing paper

White cards, first issued in 1993, were supposed to be temporary. They were introduced after National Registration Cards were replaced a few years earlier with Citizenship Scrutiny Cards. While many Rohingya held NRCs, they were given the white cards instead of CSCs, which denote full citizenship.

However, they were told the temporary documents would pave the way to some form of citizenship in accordance with the 1982 law.

“This generation of white-card holders - many were [or still are] NRC holders,” says U Shwe Maung.

Those who submitted their applications for citizenship outside Rakhine State were successful in getting them processed. Those within the state, however, were left in limbo.

Since the decision to scrap the white cards, the government has sought to replace them with yet more temporary identification cards. These are being met with widespread rejection in Rakhine State because the authorities, rejecting the term “Rohingya”, insist that holders identify as “Bengali”.

Under the 1982 law, full citizenship, associate citizenship and naturalised citizenship all carry suffrage rights. In theory, if someone identifying as Rohingya could produce the primary documents – that is, an NRC for each parent and themselves – they would be eligible to undergo the citizenship scrutiny process and be deemed naturalised citizens, and therefore able to vote. Naturalised citizenship, under the law, requires applicants to prove that their family resided in Myanmar prior to 1948.

“It shouldn’t matter if people lost their NRC. It’s enough if they can remember their NRC number or can find the family list in their respective village tract - a copy is kept in each village and ward office. The Union immigration minister has said several times that the records exist at village, township and state level,” said U Shwe Maung.

The government’s current citizenship scrutiny exercise, known as the “Moe Pwint Project”, has seen former white-card holders around the country granted citizenship, after their documents had been scrutinised.

However, this procedure is not well understood, and many of Rakhine State’s Muslim population are reluctant to hand over what little official documentation they still have to the authorities.

“People are afraid to say that they have an NRC because they are so few now. Some are holding an NRC, but are not willing to let go of it… It’s a complicated situation,” said U Shwe Maung.

A local Buthidaung official told The Myanmar Times that so far perhaps 100 Rohingya in Maungdaw and 10 in Buthidaung had taken up the citizenship scrutiny offer with a view to exercising their democratic rights.


Both Maungdaw and Buthidaung get a seat in the lower house of the national parliament, the Pyithu Hluttaw. Buthidaung also has a seat in the upper house, the Amyotha Hluttaw, while Maungdaw gets two due to its larger population. Both townships also return two MPs each to the Rakhine State Hluttaw. A representative from the Union Election Commission told The Myanmar Times that the list of registered parties and candidates was soon to be distributed at the village-tract level.

The public display period, which runs until September 27, will allow people to see the voter lists. If they are eligible but not listed, they will be able to apply to have their names added. The UEC says that advance voting will be available to flood-hit communities.

All of this applies to the Rohingya, albeit with significantly greater administrative and bureaucratic hurdles to clear – and little time left.

Since the violence that swept the state in 2012, distrust and tension have marred relations between Buddhist and Muslim communities. Both groups express the fear that hostilities could flare once more. The perception that the international community ignores Rakhine grievances and provides them with little assistance has further driven a wedge. Many point to the state’s lack of development as a key factor driving conflict.

“It’s one of the least developed states in Myanmar. I hope for development for all the community – Rakhine, Kami, Mro … all the people. If development is only for [one community], that doesn’t make sense. We cannot say that is development that will help the people – we need peace and development for all,” U Shwe Maung said.

This sentiment is echoed by U Aye Maung, leader of the Arakan National Party (ANP). The party was formed out of a merger in 2013 of the RNDP, which contested the 2010 election, and the Arakan League for Democracy.

“We need to harmonise our community – that means the Muslim and the Buddhist community [of Rakhine State] ... Most people just want security. We need development, a peace process, social progress – all the situations need to change,” he said.

However, the ANP threw its significant political clout behind the push to strip white card holders of the right to vote. This effort was successful, as was its campaign to bar U Shwe Maung from contesting a seat as an independent in the November 8 poll. Like nearly all Muslim candidates, he was rejected on citizenship grounds, but insists he meets the eligibility criteria.

U Aye Maung told The Myanmar Times he was quietly confident his party would win enough seats to control the state parliament, even after taking into account the 25 percent of appointed military MPs.

With the vast majority of Buthidaung township’s population effectively unable to cast a ballot, independent candidates are likely to face a futile battle against the likes of the ANP, which will exploit these divisions by appealing to ethno-nationalist sensibilities.

“There is no chance for [the NLD or USDP] in Buthidaung,” U Aye Maung said. “We’ll win, we’ll win.”

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