RANGOON — A top US State Department official has criticized the government’s decision to invalidate temporary identity cards and revoke the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims in western Burma’s Arakan State during an upcoming constitutional referendum.
Tom Malinowski, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said in a statement on Twitter on Thursday that “Invalidating white cards for Rohingya in #Burma is counter to the reconciliation in #Rakhine & inclusive elections the gov says it wants.”
Malinowski was reacting to President Thein Sein’s decision on Wednesday to let temporary identity cards, popularly known as white cards, expire on March 31. The card holders are subsequently required to undergo a citizen verification process carried out by local authorities to determine their status in Burma.
A presidential spokesman said the card holders’ right to vote in the referendum—tentatively scheduled for May—was automatically revoked because of the decision. A week earlier, Parliament passed a law proposed by the president that gave white card holders the right to vote—a move that drew the ire of the Arakanese Buddhist community, which are embroiled in an at times violent conflict with the Rohingya minority in Arakan State.
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York that Moon’s Special Adviser on Burma, Vijay Nambiar, was looking into the decision’s implications.
“We’re very concerned about the reported notification that holders of temporary ID cards will be required to hand over their cards,” he said. “This is something that Mr. Nambiar is following closely and he’s trying to get further details as to what this order actually means and how it fits in with things that … the government had committed itself to before.”
The UK Embassy and the UN offices in Rangoon did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the government’s decision.
The international community has repeatedly criticized Burma’s treatment of the Rohingya, who are denied basic government services, such as education and healthcare, and freedom of movement. Foreign governments have called on Burma to grant the Rohingya citizenship and resolve Arakan’s humanitarian crisis, which has displaced some 140,000 people, mostly Muslims.
The government has failed to take clear steps to resolve the citizenship issue, which is deeply unpopular with the predominantly Buddhist Burmese public. It launched a pilot citizenship verification project in Arakan in 2013 that was suspended and recently revived, but the process is obscured by a dearth of information.
Some local legal experts have questioned the legality of letting white card holders vote without official citizenship. Burma’s former military regime let the approximately 700,000 white card-holding Rohingya vote in the 2008 Constitutional referendum and the 2010 general elections, both considered flawed polls. Members of the Muslim-majority constituencies were also granted seats in Parliament to represent the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.