Thein Sein Pushes Referendum Suffrage for White Card Holders

By Nyein Nyein 22 December 2014

President Thein Sein has recommended that Burma’s temporary identity card holders, also known as “white card holders,” be allowed to vote in a proposed referendum on amendments to the 2008 military-drafted Constitution.

According to members of Parliament’s Joint Bill Committee, Thein Sein sent the constitutional referendum bill back to Parliament, including a written remark that white card holders should be granted the right to vote due to the fact that they were allowed to do so during the referendum to approve the Constitution in May 2008.

The president’s input, sent to the Union Parliament’s Joint Bill Committee last week, highlighted Article 11(a) under Chapter Five of the referendum bill, a draft of which was published in state newspapers on Nov. 26.

Article 11(a) of the bill reads: “All citizens, naturalized citizens, associate citizens and the temporary card-holders, who are 18 years old, has the right to vote on the referendum day and these people must be included in the voter lists.”

Ba Shein, a Joint Bill Committee member and Lower House lawmaker from the Arakan National Party, told The Irrawaddy that the committee would submit its recommendations to the Union Parliament, which will reconvene in the third week of January.

“I cannot say the decision of the committee on the president’s remark until it is shared in the upcoming parliamentary session,” said Ba Shein, who hinted at his personal position on the issue.

“Personally, I think political affairs are entirely the concern of citizens and not non-citizens,” said the Arakanese lawmaker.

Parliament has the power to vote down the president’s suggestion in its final approval.

Thein Sein’s comment marks a different approach to white card holders than he took on separate elections-related legislation in October, when the president shared the view of Parliament on a change to the Political Parties Registration Law, signing off on an amendment barring white card holders from forming political parties.

The vast majority of white cards holders—estimated to number some 850,000 in total—are Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State who the government classifies as “Bengalis” and largely denies citizenship. The cards were first issued in 1993, under the previous military junta. A majority of white card holders voted in favor of the 2008 Constitution and supported candidates from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in 2010.

Critics of the decision to allow white card holders to vote have accused the USDP of essentially buying votes through the cards’ issuance, in a region where there is strong support for Arakanese parties among the majority ethnic Arakanese constituencies.

Abu Tahay, a Rohingya leader who has been trying for two years to register his political party, the National Union Development Party, said Thein Sein’s recommendation reflected the president’s conception of an “all inclusive” national reform process.

“If the temporary card holders, whose existence in the country has been recognized, are not allowed to vote, it would be against to the voters’ rights enshrined in the 2008 Constitution,” he said.

Apart from the Political Parties Registration Law and the referendum bill put forward by Parliament, white cards holders currently retain the right to vote, as laid out in electoral laws at the Union and regional levels.

Several lawmakers said the president appeared to be backing the Union Election Commission. UEC member Myint Naing told Parliament last month that the right to vote should extend to the same populations that were given suffrage in the 2010 national election, given that there have been no changes to electoral laws in the interim.

Hla Maung Cho, the commission’s deputy director, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the process of compiling voter lists, which began last month, was being carried out in accordance with all relevant electoral laws.