Upper House Approves Ban on Politics for Non-Citizens

By Lawi Weng 20 March 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s Upper House on Thursday passed an amendment to a clause in the Constitution, removing the right of temporary citizenship card holders to form parties.

The decision could further reduce the rights of stateless Rohingya minority in Arakan State, many of who only hold such cards. The proposed amendment could also pose a problem for political dissidents who lack citizenship cards because they lived abroad for decades under the former military regime and are now returning to Burma during the democratic transition.

During a session Thursday, Upper House MPs did not object to the amendment put forth by the Arakan National Party (ANP), a proposal first suggested by ANP in August last year. The amendment will now have to be approved by the Lower House.

ANP Chairman Aye Maung, whose party represents the Buddhist Arakanese community in western Burma, said the decision was important to ensure that the political process in the country remained under control of those with full citizenship rights.

“We need to protect our ethnic rights to participate in politics. I am worried about those who are not citizens of Burma influencing power in the country,” he told The Irrawaddy.

“Those who run political parties in the future have to have citizenship. Those who hold white cards [temporary cards] should apply for citizenship,” said Aye Maung. He added that his party would soon ask Parliament to also remove the voting rights of those with temporary citizenship.

The current 2008 Constitution, written by the former military regime, allows people to form political parties, run for office and vote in elections if they possess a temporary citizenship cards, also called “white cards.”

Burma’s former military government issued white cards to many of the Rohingya population in northern Arakan State’s Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships. Even though the government maintains the approximately 1-million strong minority are not Burmese citizens and officially refers to them as “Bengalis” to suggest they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

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.

Recent reports in local media quoted the parliamentary bill committee information as saying that there are 850,000 white card holders in Burma.

Several USDP lawmakers in Parliament come from Muslim-majority constituencies in northern Arakan State. Despite this situation, the USDP-dominated Upper House did not stop the amendment from being passed on Tuesday.

All Mon Region Democracy Party MP Nai Banyar Aung Moe told The Irrawaddy that he had supported excluding white card holders from forming parties. “It’s very important to have this law, so that Chinese, Muslims and [Burmese] with English nationality who come from other countries cannot have influence and power,” he said.

Abu Tahay, A Rohingya leader and chairman of the Union Nationals Development Party, an organization from Buthidaung Township that the government has declined to recognize, said the new measure would pose problems for Rohingyas seeking exercise their political rights.

Abu Tahay said he could agree with the new amendment if Rohingyas would be given opportunities to obtain citizenship, adding, however, that this was nearly impossible. “People need to have full documents to become citizenship … [but] many of our people do not have full documents for many reasons,” he said.

The Rohingya in northern Arakan have faced widespread discrimination and human rights abuses at the hands of authorities and security forces in recent decades.

In 2012, violence flared up between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the state. About 150,000 people were displaced and about 200 killed in communal violence in June and October 2012.