Week of Protests Planned Against Suffrage for White Card Holders

By Yen Saning 5 February 2015

RANGOON — Nationalist monks and laypeople plan to stage seven days of protests beginning on Monday to denounce a parliamentary decision this week allowing temporary citizens to vote in a nationwide referendum on constitutional reform.

Burma’s Union Parliament on Monday passed the controversial law enfranchising temporary citizens, also known as “white card holders,” ahead of the charter vote in May. In doing so, the 2015 referendum law grants the ballot to about 1.5 million people who live in Burma but do not enjoy full citizenship rights.

Protests will be held in Rangoon and Sittwe, Arakan State, with organizers in the commercial capital planning a march from the eastern gate of Shwedagon Pagoda to the Rangoon Division parliamentary building. Applications seeking authorities’ permission for the protests have already been submitted to the Bahan Dagon townships’ police stations, organizers say.

“If there is not a single response after seven days of protests, we plan a protest march to Naypyidaw,” said Win Ko Ko Latt, one of the protest organizers. “Others townships also have an interest in this issue. We will alert them in order to coordinate.”

“It’s not like we won’t protest because it’s the government or a big organization,” said the abbot of Magwe Monastery, U Parmoutkha. “We will do what we should be doing to any government or any organization that harms the nation and [will ensure] religion in this country does not disappear.”

The National Democratic Force (NDF) party has also joined in the backlash against Parliament, releasing a statement on Wednesday urging the legislature to reconsider and reverse its decision granting temporary citizens the right to vote in the referendum.

“The Union Parliament’s decision is officially allowing non-citizens ‘the right to vote’—the highest right for a citizen. That decision diminishes a Burmese citizen’s birthright … and is also officially sanctioning the infringement of state sovereignty.”

The NDF also urged the government to provide national identity cards in short order to any person who currently holds only a temporary citizen white card if they belong to one of the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Burma, in accordance with the 1982 Citizenship Law.

White card holders lack full citizenship for a variety of reasons and include Burma-born ethnic Chinese and Indians, but the largest group of white card holders is Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State, a group that is not recognized as one of Burma’s 135 ethnic groups. The government refers to them as Bengali, implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Though white cards have existed for more than two decades, the controversy took an overtly political turn in the lead up to the 2010 parliamentary election, when the then junta government enfranchised about 1.5 million non-citizens for a poll that swept the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to power. Critics said the move effectively amounted to vote buying.

The Buddhist nationalist monk U Wirathu released a statement on Tuesday, asking the president, Parliament and Union Election Commission to rescind temporary citizens’ referendum franchise, calling white card holders “illegal immigrants.”

“If white card holders—who are harming ethnic interests—are allowed to vote in the coming general election as they will [in the referendum], I will lead in meting out the retribution,” he said.

Additional reporting by May Sitt Paing.