RANGOON — Burma’s Immigration and National Registration Department says people living in the country who lack identity documents after handing over their temporary ID cards in recent weeks will be issued an alternative form of documentation beginning on Friday.
The plan appears to be an attempt to deal with hundreds of thousands of people in Burma who have recently seen their only form of government ID, namely the temporary identity documents known as “white cards,” invalidated by the administration of President Thein Sein.
Tin Chit, director of the department under the Ministry of Immigration and Population, told The Irrawaddy that not all former white card holders would receive the new document on Friday.
“Even though the process starts on June 5, the card may be issued on June 7, or 8,” he said, citing the time required to process would-be card holders.
The new cards will be valid for two years with the possibility to renew the document at that time, the director said. With a far more unwieldy nomenclature than its predecessor, the “identity card for those whose nationality will be scrutinized” will do just as its name implies, Tin Chit said, offering former white card holders a form of ID until their claim to citizenship can be assessed.
Tin Chit said the card will be a blue-green color.
Holders making a claim to Burmese citizenship will need to submit an application to the Ministry of Immigration and Population tracing familial roots in Burma in accordance with the 1982 Citizenship Law. The so-called “citizenship scrutiny process” is not well understood, but has been promoted by the government as a way for white card holders, the largest contingent being stateless minority Rohingya Muslims, to become citizens.
Applicants who undergo the citizenship scrutiny process can receive full, naturalized or associated citizenship.
Holders of the new cards who fail to receive any of these designations would simply continue to hold their blue-green card, according to Tin Chit.
Immigration and Population Minister Khin Ye said on Friday at a press conference in Naypyidaw that those who returned their white cards would be given new identity documents allowing them to remain inside the country.
The plan appears to have come in response to mounting calls internationally for Burma to address the stateless status of the Rohingya, more than 100,000 of whom have fled the country since violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. The plight of the Rohingya has made headlines in recent weeks as thousands of so-called “boat people” have washed ashore in Southeast Asia from Bangladesh and Burma, the former seeking economic opportunity and the latter said to be fleeing persecution in Arakan State.
US President Barack Obama became the most prominent voice to express concern over Burma’s treatment of the Rohingya, saying this week that the Muslim minority was being discriminated against.
The government began issuing white cards in 1995, according to Tin Chit, but Thein Sein announced in February that these cards would expire on March 31, with the president asking white card holders to return them to local authorities by May 31.
More than 400,000 white cards have since been returned, 90 percent of them coming from Arakan State. Tin Chit said last week that government records indicated that more than 760,000 white cards had been issued, though some estimates put the number of people holding the temporary ID as high as 1.5 million.
White card holders were allowed to vote in Burma’s general election in 2010, but Parliament is in the process of stripping white card holders from election laws dictating eligible voters for nationwide polls due late this year.
It appears unlikely that holders of the new blue-green cards will be granted suffrage.
Tin Chit on Wednesday said the government would also process those who claim to have once held a white card but lost it, as is the case for many Rohingya Muslims whose homes were burned to the ground in the 2012 violence.
Those unable to produce a physical card would be allowed to tell local authorities their white card ID number, which the government can check against national registries, he said.
“After giving new identity cards for those people who return white cards, we will give [blue-green cards] to those people [with no card in hand],” said Tin Chit.
The largest group of white card holders was Rohingya living in Arakan State, though holders of the temporary identity document were from a variety of ethnic groups sprinkled throughout the country.
In an apparent deflecting of recent international criticism, Tin Chit said there would be no blanket citizenship granted to Rohingya Muslims.
“Every citizen is interrogated under the Citizenship Law to obtain citizenship cards and we cannot make special [exceptions] to Bengalis, so come and undergo scrutiny and get the relevant cards,” Tin Chit said, referring to the Muslim minority by the official government term.