RANGOON — Arakanese lawmakers and a group of opposition parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), are asking Burma’s Constitutional Tribunal to overturn a recent parliamentary decision to grant so-called white card holders the right to vote in a planned constitutional referendum.
Pe Than, an Upper House lawmaker with the Arakan National Party (ANP), said 27 lawmakers in the house signed a letter asking the Tribunal to review Parliament’s decision on Feb. 2 to grant white card holders, also known as temporary identity registration card holders, a vote in the referendum.
“This is our last effort; we want the Constitutional Tribunal to check [the law],” he said. “We are waiting to hear the decision by the Constitutional Tribunal at the moment. We hope the best result will come out. But our Rakhine party decided already to protest throughout Rakhine State on Feb. 15.”
The 2015 Referendum Law automatically enfranchises hundreds of thousands of white card holders, who live in Burma but do not enjoy full citizenship rights.
About 700,000 of them belong to the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority in northern Arakan State, an area that has been marred by conflict between Arakanese Buddhists and Muslims. Other white card holders include Chinese nationals living in Burma, families of Gurkha units that moved to Burma under British rule and members of the ethnic Kokang living on the Burma-China border.
Pe Than said ANP chairman and Upper House representative Aye Maung had led the initiative, while the NLD, Myanmar Democratic Force and several ethnic opposition parties joined in.
Under the Constitution’s Article 322 (b), he said, 10 percent of the lawmakers of any of two Houses of Parliament could sign a letter and request the Tribunal to review whether laws violate Burma’s charter.
A referendum is expected to be held in mid-2015, when the public will be asked to approve amendments to Burma’s military-drafted charter. A constitutional review committee has recommended a total of 95 revisions, though they have yet to be approved by Parliament or the president.
Arakanese politicians are fiercely opposed to any legal recognition of the Muslim minority in northern Arakan State, who they claim are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Arakanese fear the Referendum Law will also allow the group the rights to vote in the general elections, scheduled for early November. Withholding Rohingya voting rights would boost the power of the Arakanese politicians, which otherwise dominate the state.
The Rohingya, who lack Burmese citizenship status, were first issued white cards about two decades ago by the then-military regime.
They were allowed to vote in the referendum on the 2008 military-drafted Constitution and the rigged 2010 general election. Muslim members of northern Arakan constituencies were also granted seats in Parliament to represent the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Parliament’s recent decision, which was proposed by President Thein Sein, reconfirms the USDP’s intention to again grant the group voting rights.
The Rohingya face severe persecution and say they have been living in the region for generations and should be granted citizenship rights and voting rights.
Mohamed Salim, a Rohingya spokesman for the unregistered National Development and Peace Party in Rangoon, welcomed Parliament’s decision to let white card holders vote, adding that he believed that the group should get citizenship rights.
He said the regime had taken away citizenship cards from some of the Rohingya in the early 1990s and replaced them with white cards. “We all are citizen of this country. Being a white card holder does not mean we are people from another country,” he said.
The international community had been deeply concerned about the plight of the Rohingya and has urged the government to grant the group citizenship.
Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi told The Irrawaddy during an interview in Chiang Mai, Thailand, last week that letting white card holders vote did not imply citizenship rights for card holders, although he sidestepped questions on whether granting white card holders voting rights would contravene Burmese laws.
“Our ministry is not involved in the issue of the right to vote or not. Parliament decided on this. We provide these cards to people undergoing the [citizenship] scrutinizing process,” he said.
Robert San Aung, a lawyer who has represented many rights activists, said Burmese law did not specify whether white card holders had voting rights, adding that the Election Law states that only those with citizenship have voting rights.
He said the white card holders’ vaguely-defined legal status was being abused by the USDP and government for political gains during voting. “This is just a plot by a powerful party in government. They created this policy since 2008 when the country had a referendum… They use it when they need it,” Robert San Aung said.
Additional reporting from Chiang Mai by Nyein Nyein.