RANGOON — Hundreds of thousands of temporary identity cardholders, most of whom are stateless Rohingya Muslims, saw their official identification papers expire on Wednesday as a result of a controversial government decision taken in February aimed at revoking their voting rights.
Authorities in western Burma’s Arakan State, where many of the Rohingya live, said hundreds of so-called white cards were voluntarily returned on Wednesday, but local Muslim leaders said many would refuse to give up their only remaining form of official identification.
The card holders lack official citizenship and are effectively stateless. There are believed to be between 600,000 to 800,000 white card holders, most of who are Rohingya, a Muslim minority of around 1 million people who live in northern Arakan State.
The government measure requires the holders to render their temporary identity cards to local authorities before May 31, after which they are supposed to undergo a citizen verification process carried out by local authorities to determine their status in Burma.
Khin Soe, an immigration officer in Arakan State capital Sittwe, said 1,363 people in nine northern townships had returned their cards by noon Wednesday.
“There are people who come to give back their white cards directly to our immigration officers, or some people gave it back to their community leaders. This is just first day and many more people will come to give it back in the remaining period,” he said.
Those who give up their white cards are given a “receipt” to prove they had a temporary identity card and can enter the citizenship verification process come June, Khin Soe said.
The process will be implemented by local authorities in accordance with the 1982 Citizenship Law and was piloted last year in Arakan State’s Myebon Township, where some 200 Muslims were granted citizenship status. It was suspended after several weeks because the local Buddhist Arakanese population demonstrated against the project.
The Arakanese population and the Rohingya minority have been embroiled in a sometimes violent communal conflict, with about 140,000 of the latter having been displaced by violence since 2012.
Burma’s government has failed to take clear steps to resolve the citizenship issue of the Rohingya, which is deeply unpopular with the predominantly Buddhist public. The citizenship verification process is obscured by a dearth of information.
The 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize the term Rohingya as an ethnic minority of Burma and members of the Muslim group are unlikely to obtain any form government documentation if they insist of self-identifying under the name Rohingya. The government insists on calling the group “Bengalis” to suggest that most of are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Khin Soe said card holders would have to show proof of a long family history in Arakan State if they wanted to obtain Burmese citizenship and have an identity card again.
“When they provide documents showing their grandparents and parents stayed here, we need to look at the records in detail. Then, township level, regional level and the central government will decide whether to give them ID cards,” he said. “If we found someone came from Bangladesh and they do not have enough documents, we could punish them.”
Aung Win, a Rohingya rights activist and community leader in Sittwe, said most members of the Muslim community were reluctant to give their only form of official identification to Arakanese authorities, as they distrusted officials and the citizenship verification process and feared being labelled immigrants.
“Our people here are worried about what they will happen next after they return their white cards,” he said. “I do not see many people come out yet [to return their cards], but there are more days left, maybe they will come on other days.”
Hla Maung, a Rohingya man from Maungdaw Township, said his eight family members had given their white cards to a local community leader on Wednesday. “We do not get a receipt yet, but they told us that they will give us a receipt soon, when it is signed by the township authority,” he said.
Hla Maung said he was hopeful his family could successfully join the citizenship verification process. “We were born here; we did not come from Bangladesh. We have all the documents to prove our grandparents and parents stayed here,” he said.
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.
In February, the government backtracked on a decision to grant white card holders voting rights in an upcoming constitutional referendum and announced it would let all white cards expire.
Tom Malinowski, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said in February that invalidating the white cards is “counter to reconciliation” in Arakan State and inclusive elections.