Lower House Passes Election Laws Nixing ‘White Card’ Suffrage

By Yen Saning 25 May 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s Lower House of Parliament has approved an amended trio of election laws revoking the right of temporary identity card holders to vote in a general election due late this year.

The laws cover elections to the Union Parliament’s Upper House, its Lower House and regional legislatures, and the amendments strip the term “temporary identity card holders”—also known as “white card holders”—from the list of those eligible to cast a ballot.

Khin Htay Kywe, a Lower House parliamentarian from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, confirmed that the laws were approved on Monday without deliberation. Parliamentarians had been told to submit any suggested changes to the laws, which were drafted by the Union Election Commission (UEC) and put before the Lower House last week.

The practical necessity of removing the election laws’ provision on temporary identity card holders was unclear, since a ruling from President Thein Sein earlier this year declared that the cards would be invalid as of March 31.

Former white card holders are from a diverse mix of ethnic groups and were issued the document over the years as a form of identification for people living in Burma who lacked full citizenship. Muslim Rohingya in Arakan State are believed to constitute the largest bloc of white card holders, and critics have said the revocation of their white cards constitutes just the latest disenfranchisement of the persecuted minority.

The revocations have a measure of popular support, however, with hundreds of people demonstrating against suffrage for temporary identity card holders in February.

White card holders were allowed to vote in Burma’s last general election, in 2010.

Pe Than, a Lower House lawmaker with the Arakan National Party (ANP), said the move to amend the laws came after a constitutional tribunal ruled in February that white card holders were ineligible to vote in a referendum on amending Burma’s Constitution.

“The constitutional tribunal has decided that voting rights for white card holders are not in accordance with the law. And the president has already revoked the white cards. Parliament has to make changes in accordance with that,” Pe Than said.

The verdict of the tribunal had seemingly become a moot point after Thein Sein in February 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.

Tin Chit, director of the Ministry of Immigration and Population’s Immigration and National Registration Department, said more than 400,000 white cards had already been returned, 90 percent of them coming from Arakan State. He added 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.

“We have a review and advising committee to handle this,” Tin Chit told The Irrawaddy, referring to efforts to bestow an alternative form of identification on former white card holders. “We have to give them a certain type of card according to the law. The group has already thought of a certain type of card they will issue. But they haven’t released any information yet.”

Mohamed Salim, a spokesperson for the Rohingya advocacy group National Reconciliation and Peace Association, said the decision to rescind the voting rights of temporary identity card holders was “wrong” because most were Muslims living in Arakan State with legitimate claims to citizenship.

He welcomed the theoretical path to citizenship that the government has said it will offer former white card holders.

“There will be no problems when citizen cards are issued after national identification process is completed,” he said.

Three identical draft laws have been submitted to the Upper House by the UEC, but have not yet been discussed, according to Ning Kam Pong, a lawmaker in that chamber with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).