RANGOON — President Thein Sein this week signed into law an amendment to Burma’s Political Parties Registration Law, removing the right of temporary citizenship cardholders to form political parties or serve as their members.
The change to the law appears targeted at the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, many of whom hold the so-called “white cards” that grant them status as temporary citizens.
Previously, the law allowed any “citizen, associate citizen, naturalized citizen or temporary certificate holder” to form and join political parties, but the amended legislation restricts that right only to individuals holding full citizenship status.
Hla Maung Cho, deputy director of the Union Election Commission (UEC), said the electoral body would draw up a by-law to accompany the amended legislation, including a determination on how long parties would have to comply with the new restriction.
Political parties will be responsible for vetting their memberships, with the UEC serving as an oversight body to ensure compliance. Asked how many party cadres might be affected by the change to the law, Hla Maung Cho said the UEC did not have an estimate, but had begun the process of scrutinizing party lists.
If a party is competing at the national level, it can be disbanded by the UEC if it fails to achieve a membership of 1,000 people within 90 days of registering as a political party, and a minimum membership of 500 people is required within the same period if it is a regional party.
Khin Maung Myint of the National Democrat Party for Development, one of at least three registered political parties that looks likely to be affected by the amended law, said his party was not worried about coming up short of the membership requirement.
“We will evaluate this. It’s quite early to say whether this is targeting only an ethnic group or a religion,” said Khin Maung Myint, joint general secretary of the party, who identifies himself as Rohingya and holds a so-called “Citizenship Scrutiny Card” conferring full citizenship.
The amendment will reduce the rights of the Rohingya minority in Arakan State, many of whom only hold such cards. There are three parties that claim to speak for Rohingya constituencies: the Union Nationals Development Party (UNDP), the National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD) and the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP).
Burma’s former military government issued white cards to many of the Rohingya population in northern Arakan State’s Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships. The cards were issued to the Muslim group so that they could vote in support of a constitutional referendum in 2008, as well as for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the national elections in 2010. Despite this, the government maintains that the approximately one million-strong minority are not Burmese citizens and officially refers to them as “Bengalis,” suggesting they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Recent reports in local media quoted a parliamentary committee as saying that there are some 850,000 white cardholders in Burma.
The law’s change could also pose a problem for political dissidents who lack citizenship cards because they lived abroad for decades under the former military regime and have since returned to Burma as the country has undergone democratic reforms.
Aye Maung, chairman of the Arakan National Party, welcomed the restrictive amendment, saying that allowing non-citizens to participate in party politics was “concerned with sovereignty.”
The amendment to the law comes as human rights groups condemn a plan that would effectively require Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State to identify as Bengali or risk detention.
About 140,000 Rohingya in Arakan State already live in temporary camps after anti-Muslim violence displaced them from their homes in 2012.
“The long-awaited Rakhine [Arakan] State Action Plan both expands and solidifies the discriminatory and abusive Burmese government policies that underpin the decades-long persecution of the Rohingya,” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, said in a statement on Friday. “It is nothing less than a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness that appears designed to strip the Rohingya of hope and force them to flee the country.”