Burma’s Union Parliament recently passed a controversial law granting temporary identity card holders the right to vote in a referendum on constitutional amendments later this year. The move has prompted criticism and protests, given that these individuals, also known as “white card holders,” do not hold Burmese citizenship. The number of white card holders is unknown, with estimates ranging from 700,000 to 1.5 million, most of whom are Rohingya Muslims.
Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi talked about the issue with The Irrawaddy in Chiang Mai, Thailand, last week, and also addressed questions on remaining difficulties for exiled dissidents seeking to re-enter Burma and national census data due to be released later this year.
Question: With Parliament allowing white card holders to vote in the constitutional referendum, does that mean they have been given the rights of citizenship?
Answer: It is not exactly accurate to say that they have become citizens, because the Temporary Identity Certificates [white cards] are provided by the Immigration Ministry in accordance with the incumbent law. People find it easy to call them ‘white card holders’ as it is on a white piece of paper. [Burmese citizens are issued pink national ID cards]. We provided them with this card because they are not yet verified citizens of the country. They must apply for citizenship and we scrutinize them in accordance with our rules and then we decide whether they can be citizens or not. It is not that white card holders automatically become citizens.
Q: Is the right to vote in accordance with the 1982 Citizenship Law?
A: Our ministry is not involved in the issue of the right to vote or not. Parliament decided on this. We provide these cards to people undergoing the [citizenship] scrutinizing process. There are many white card holders—including Bengali, Indians, Pakistanis, Gurkha—across the country. They are between 700,000 and 800,000 on our lists. We carefully gave them these cards as they still need to go through the national verification process.
Q:White card holders face travel restrictions, for instance in Arakan State. Is this Immigration Ministry policy?
A: The travel issue depends solely on local authorities. The authorities restrict the travel, for instance, in Arakan State. They can ask for permission to travel; it is not that they are not allowed to. There are many people travelling in this way for medical treatment or schooling.
Q:What is the ministry doing in terms of national verification for white card holders?
A: We do the national verification twice a year, starting with township-level verifications and ending with national-level verification. I act as chairman of the committee, in which the members are officials from the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs and Defense. We, step by step, scrutinize their applications and grant citizenship in accordance with the 1982 Citizenship Law.
Q: Some people complain that their National Registration Cards were seized and replaced with white cards. What are you doing to resolve this issue?
A: This has not happened during our [administrative] term. It was in 1990 when their NRCs were seized, as there were reports of people obtaining fake cards. We have now allowed them to reapply for citizenship. When they apply, we issue them the appropriate documents [identifying them as] associate citizen, naturalized citizen or white cards.
Q:What is your view on criticisms that Parliament took up the white card issue just as student protests against the National Education Law have begun to heat up?
A: I have read such criticism on social media and on the Internet. I don’t think it is related. The debate on white cards has long existed in Parliament before the students’ protest.
Q: There are still reports of obstacles and difficulties for once-exiled Burmese dissidents who now hold foreign passports but want to come back to Burma. Why is that?
A: Our President U Thein Sein has invited all Burma-born foreign passport holders to return to the country in the spirit of national reconciliation. According to our laws, former Burmese [who no longer hold citizenship] could not be citizens of Myanmar again as they have obtained the citizenship of a foreign country. We do not allow dual citizenship.
But one hole here is that the president can accept them in accordance with Section 8(b) of the 1982 Citizenship Law, in which they can become a citizen of Burma if it is the interest of the country. [The provision Khin Yi refers to is in fact Section 8(a)]. There are also three ministries involved: the ministries of Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and us. The ministries have to do scrutinizing on the issuance of certificate of identity and checking for a criminal background. If they do not have criminal cases and are not on a blacklist, it is no problem for them in terms of getting a visa or reapplying for citizenship. We have accepted about 100 out of 185 applications reapplying for citizenship. Some dissidents think that after they submit the citizenship application, it is done and they never contact us again. But it is not and it takes time.
Q: The provisional results of the census were released in August, but what about the full results, including data on ethnic populations in Burma? Will the official list of 135 ethnicities remain or will it be amended? For example, ethnic Zomi in Chin State are not listed among the 135 recognized groups.
A: Compiling of the results is not finished yet. We are still in the process of data analysis. The draft list will come out at the end of May. But the ethnicity list will not be finalized. We don’t know yet. We have recorded whatever they said regarding ethnicity. If they said they are Zomi, it was recorded as such. And after we have the list of the ethnicities, it will be brought before ethnic representatives of each group for discussion. We will not publicize the results until the list is consulted with the ethnic leaders, as we do not want misunderstandings.
Q: When you met Dr. Cynthia Maung in 2013, you talked about the issuance of birth certificates for the children of Burmese migrant workers born on the Thailand-Burma border. What is the latest on this effort?
A: Honestly, it remains an obligation. We have been busy with the national census and the peace process, so we have not started yet on the issues discussed with Sayama Cynthia. Our ministry cannot do it alone; the health ministry and other related ministries must cooperate. We have not got the solution or a detailed policy yet, but we will do it for sure.
Q: Does that mean it will be address only after the successful completion of the peace process?
A: No, it does not. This is about the acceptance of our ethnics as citizens. We have not been able to focus yet on this as we have been concentrating on solving other issues, such as the Arakan State issue and the peace talks, which are not yet resolved.