Court Deems White Card Holders’ Vote Unconstitutional, Sends Law Back to Parliament

By Yen Saning 17 February 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s Constitutional Tribunal informed Parliament on Monday that the articles of the recently passed Referendum Law that granted white card holders voting rights are in violation of the Constitution.

Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann read out the Tribunal’s verdict stating that “white card holders are ineligible to vote in a referendum on amendment[s] of [the] State Constitution,” as it violated the charter’s Article 4, Article 38(a) and Article 391, state media reported on Tuesday.

According to Article 391, only those with citizenship can be granted voting rights, the verdict stated.

The verdict of the Tribunal had become a moot point after President Thein Sein last week decided to backtrack on the implications of the Referendum Law he had sent to Parliament by issuing a directive that let all temporary identification cards expire per March 31.

The decision automatically revoked the voting rights of the approximately 750,000 card holders, which for the most part comprise members of the stateless Rohingya Muslims in western Burma’s Arakan State. An unknown number of ethnic Chinese, Kokang and Wa minorities are also white card holders.

Before the president’s directive was issued, opposition lawmakers of Arakanese and other ethnic parties, and the National League for Democracy asked the Tribunal to review the Referendum Law as they oppose enfranchising the holders of the cards, who are not granted citizenship rights under Burmese law.

Although the verdict had lost much of its importance after the directive was issued, opposition lawmakers said they were pleased with the Tribunal’s decision, which meant that the Referendum Law will have to be amended and again be put to a parliamentary vote.

Khin Maung Swe, a lawmaker of National Democratic Force Party, said it would have been “non-sense if those who granted are citizens’ [voting] rights are holding white cards—whether they are Muslims or Buddhists.”

The 1982 Citizenship Law disqualified the Rohingya from any citizenship claims they might have had—despite the fact that many have lived in Arakan State for generations—after which the government required them to take white cards instead.

Despite their unclear status, the former military government granted the group voting rights and let members from Muslim-majority constituencies in Arakan State represent the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in Parliament.

The government has said that its recent decision to let white cards expire will require the Rohingya population to undergo citizenship verification by local authorities. The process is obscured by a dearth of information, however, and has only been piloted for a brief period before running into opposition of the Arakanese community, which considers most of the Muslims in northern Arakan illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Pe Than, a Lower House lawmaker with the Arakan National Party, said parliamentary discussions should now focus on how the citizenship verification process should take place. “It’s important to examine accurately and fast according to the 1982 Citizenship Law—the government needs to do it with transparency,” he said.

The decision by Parliament is likely to anger the Muslim group, whose plight has rapidly worsened in recent years.

Shwe Maung, a USDP lawmaker representing a Muslim-majority Buthidaung Township in Arakan State, expressed concern over the fact that the stateless Muslims would be without any legal documentation after the white cards expire.

He said the verification process should be conducted in a fair manner before the holders are required to handover their cards on May 31. “Otherwise, they will be paperless human during identification process,” Shwe Maung said.

The international community has long criticized the government’s treatment of the Rohingya and has called on Naypyidaw to grant them citizenship. A top US State Department official said last week that the government’s decision to revoke the group’s voting rights and cards was “counter reconciliation.”