The Rohingya and the White Cards Saga
By Amman Ullah
“Citizenship is a basic right for it is nothing less than the right to have right.” Earl Warren, former U S Supreme Court Justice
“White card is a white piece of paper provided by the Immigration Ministry as a Temporary Identity Certificates in accordance with the incumbent law,” once told U Khin Yi, the then Minister of Manpower and Immigration. He also said that, “We provided them with this card because they are not yet verified citizens of the country. They must apply for citizenship and we scrutinize them in accordance with our rules and then we decide whether they can be citizens or not.”
However, there is no such law as the minster said for Temporary Identity Certificates, there was “Temporary registration certificate (TRC)”, which was provided under the under ‘the 1951 Residents of Burma Registration Rules.’
The TRC is called Form (3) where as the National Registration Card (NRC) is called Form (2) in accordance with Immigration Department. Initially, TRCs were only issued to those who applied for the registration at the age of 12. It is worth to mention that, since November 5, 1962, as visiting door to door in every nock and corner of the area for registration was not able to do, TRCs also used to issue to those who apply for NRC or form (2), instead of NRC, till recently.
Under the 1951 Residents of Burma Registration Rules, The record-keeper may issue “Temporary registration certificate (TRC)” for any of the following reasons:
• If record-keeper suppose that entry in the registration record has been done completely in a proper way.
• If an application is submitted to issue another card in lieu of the card, which is lost or damage or faded out?
• If there is specific reasons by general or special order.
TRC means a certificate issued in lieu of the registration card and a proof of identity valid for a certain period specified in the certificate. The TRC must be in accord with form (3) attached to the back of this rules. The validity duration of TRC may be restricted by fixing a deadline. The holder of TRC shall surrender his card to record-keeper within 7 days after validity of the card expires. The record-keeper may reissue that card endorsing it for validity extension as and when necessary or he may issue new TRC.
The “Residents of Burma Registration Act” was enacted in 1949 and a nine members committee was formed June 1950 to draft its rules in the name of ‘National Registration Rules Drafting Committee’. After finalizing the draft the committee submitted it to the Government for approval and the Parliament approved the Rules in the February 1951 session. It was circulated by the Ministry of Homes on February 23, 1951 as Gazette notification No. 117 in a name of , ‘Residents of Burma registration Rules, 1951’.
Every person residing in Burma shall furnish, for registration purposes, (his/her) particulars as required under this Act or its rules made there under. The Registration Officer or Assistant Registration Officer shall, in accordance with the rules made under this Act, issue to every person who has registered as such, a registration card as a proof of identity and containing prescribed particulars.
Notwithstanding anything in the above rules, the foreigners shall be exempted from the application of the said rules other than rule 29 and 31. The foreigners who were registered under 1940 Foreigner Registration rules shall be deemed that they are being registered under these rules. For the matters in the rule 29 and 31, the registration card issued under 1940 Foreigner Registration Rules shall be deemed that the card is issued under these rules.
Registration and issuing these cards was commenced on March 1, 1952 by visiting door to door in every nock and corner of the area in Rangoon District and in other 7 towns including Akyab on April1, 1952 (1953 Burma gazetteers vol.1, page-819). The tasks of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung and others 20 townships were commenced on August 1, 1953 (1954 Burmese gazetteers Vol.1, page-197).
National Registration Cards (NRCs) were issued to all residents (mainly citizens) whilst registered foreigners (under Foreigners Registration Act and Rule of 1948) were issued FRCs. There was no third category of people in Burma, then. As a result, NRCs were used as a proof of nationality or citizenship. This is the most authentic document concerning Rohingya’s citizenship.
NRC is a bona fide document that allowed one to carry on all his national activities, without let or hindrance: — to possess moveable and immovable or landed properties, pursue education, including higher studies and professional courses in the country’s seats of learning, right to work and public services, including armed forces, and to obtain Burmese Passport for travelling abroad, including pilgrimage to Holy Makkah.
According to the 1973 census, the population of Akyab Township was 140,000; Maungdaw 223,320; Buthidaung 163,353; and Rathedaung 95,270. FRC holders in Akyab were 841, Maungdaw 109, Buthidaung 203 and Rathedaung 55. There were also 1528 people without any documents. That’s means that there were 619, 195 persons NRC holders, 1, 208 persons FRC holders and 1528 persons undocumented in these townships, where more than 60%; of total population was Rohingyas at that time.
However, since 1970 no NRC cards were issued to the Rohingyas, whereas, as per the regulation every person above the age of 12 years would have to have NRCs. In addition to this, the government launched a military operation since 1974 in the name of ‘Sabe Operation’. During that operation thousands of Rohingyas’ NRCs were seized without any legal authorities, on various pretexts which were never returned. In these ways thousands of the poor and natural born Rohingyas were classified as foreigners, alleging filtrated from Bangladesh. Thus, the system of issuing the NRCs was directed to fit into a well-planned policy of de-nationalizing the Rohingyas of Arakan.
The 1982 Citizenship Law was not fully implemented immediately. It appeared to be gradually introduced and implemented over the following decade. National Registration cards were still being issued to Rohingya into the mid 1980s.
In 1989 the dictatorship began replacing the National Registration Cards with new National registration Cards, also known as Scrutiny Cards. These cards are pink. However, when Rohingya handed in their cards for replacing, instead of being given the pink Nations Registrations Cards, or scrutiny cards, they were given Temporary Registration Certificates, a form of temporary card known as the ‘White Card’. Temporary Registration Certificates (White Cards) are issued to residents in Burma (not resident foreigners) under Article 13 of the Residents of Burma Registration Rules (1951).
Until recently the Rohingyas – as other stateless minority populations, such as the Burma-born ethnic Chinese and Indian – at least had ID cards (“white cards”) were able to take part in the 2008 referendum on Burma’s Constitution, and the 2010 elections. . Allegedly, the ruling party, Union Solidarity and Development Party, chaired by the then President Thein Sein, coerced or bought Rohingya votes to secure a majority in parliament in the 2010 elections.
In April 2014, a bill to amend the Political Parties Registration Law was introduced into the Amyotha Hluttaw. The bill committee gave its views on the current law and consequently MPs discussed it from all points of view. The focus of the discussion quickly shifted to the issue of temporary identity cards, which are also known as white cards.
White cards were first issued in 1993 under the State Law and Order Restoration Council. So it is not a new issue; these cards have been around for more than 20 years. Of the 850,000 people who hold these cards, about 750,000 are in Rakhine State, and are referred to as either Bengali or Rohingya. It’s important to consider whether it is a problem that was deliberately created by the former junta and has now been passed on to Myanmar’s citizens and the Rakhine people.
When discussing the white card issue, we need to first look back at the 2010 election. There were nearly 2.7 million eligible voters in Rakhine State at the time of election, according to government figures. Of those 2.7 million, 750,000 were Rohingya holding white cards. This figure would be higher if Muslims holding other forms of identity were included.
The military government drafted elections laws, such as the Political Parties Registration Law, in line with its needs. As a result, the law states that “all people holding identity cards” – meaning anyone with a national scrutiny card, national registration card, a guest citizenship card, a naturalised citizen card or a white card – shall have the right to form a political party and vote in the election. However, only those holding citizenship scrutiny cards were allowed to stand as candidates.
While the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), which was successful in the 1990 election, boycotted the 2010 vote, a new party, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) led by U Aye Maung, took part. It campaigned strongly, rallying support from ethnic Rakhine. Realising it could not win the support of most ethnic Rakhine, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) rallied white card holders to its side. The RNDP won a majority of seats – 34 to 27 – but the result would have been much more one-sided against the USDP if white card holders could not vote. As it was, the RNDP performed better than any other ethnic minority party in terms of the proportion of seats won.
As we approach the 2015 election, the issue of allowing those who are not yet confirmed as full citizens to vote is being discussed widely. U Aye Maung submitted a proposal to the Amyotha Hluttaw to amend the Political Parties Registration Law created by the former junta and despite objections from U Hla Swe, an outspoken USDP representative from Magwe, most MPs supported it. On March 12, the bill committee presented its recommendations on the proposal, arguing that only citizens should have the privilege of voting, forming a political party or standing for election to parliament.
In early February 2015, the Myanmar parliament approved a proposal by Thein Sein to allow people with temporary identification “white cards,” most of who were Rohingya, to vote on a referendum on constitutional amendments to the country’s junta-backed constitution, which could come as early as May.
Despite opposition from the National League for Democracy, Burma’s Parliament passed a law on February 2, 2015, which is called 2015 Referendum Law. This law automatically enfranchises hundreds of thousands of white card holders, who live in Burma but successive Burmese regime denied to give them full citizenship rights. According to Irrawaddy report, lawmakers passed the legislation by a vote of 328-79, with 19 abstentions. Critics of the measure argue the new law will undermine national security. The upcoming constitutional referendum may include up to 95 proposed constitutional revisions and it is tentatively scheduled for May 2015, before a general election in October or November.
These white card holders’ vaguely-defined legal status was being abused by the USDP and government for political gains during voting. They created this policy since 2008 when the country had a referendum.
However, the President who personally advocated their enfranchisement for a referendum on a constitutional amendment issued an executive order that rescinded the same right, the day after the signing of a bill into law that allowed suffrage for white card holders. This decision was effectively reversed by President Thein Sein on 11th February 2015, when he announced all Temporary Registration Certificates (White Cards) expire on 31st March. This decision means that Rohingya will not be able to vote in any referendum or in the elections due in November 2015. President Thein Sein is not only disenfranchising the Rohingya, he is also directly going against the will of Parliament.
However, the President’s position has been particularly ambivalent, as he personally advocated their enfranchisement for a referendum on a constitutional amendment, only to The Myanmar government has started issuing green cards to Muslims in 13 townships in restive Rakhine state to verify their identities, bringing them a step closer to applying for citizenship, a local immigration official said Monday.
The back flip came on the back of a legal challenge by the Rakhine National Party and protests by Rakhine Buddhists. Following the protests, Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy party kicked out 20,000 white card holders from the party’s membership. Other parties did the same ahead of scrutiny by the Union Election Commission, which is enforcing requirements that only full citizens are members of Myanmar’s 70-odd registered political parties.
An article on white-card holders’ voting rights written by advocate Ko Ni appeared in the Voice Weekly on February 7, which mentioned that they (white cards holders) should have a legal right to vote if their papers had been issued correctly. U KO Ni is a member of the central legal support committee for the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the central committee for constitutional amendments.
“His article did not represent the NLD. He is a legal expert. His opinions were expressed in his article. He did not represent the legal outlook of the NLD. He responded to the government’s decision to grant voting rights to white-card holders from his legal point of view. It is his own opinion,” said Nyan Win, an NLD spokesman.
The article stated that the laws relating to the registration of citizens and the definition of white-card holders dated back to independence in 1948. The aim of issuing a certificate was to prove identify, Ko Ni wrote. An undocumented person could lose their rights.
People were issued a temporary identity certificate before being recognised as citizens. Ko Ni said temporary identity holders could be allowed to vote if the procedures had been followed correctly.
Issuing out a temporary identity certificate must be in conformity with the law, he said. Therefore, there was no reason to end the voting rights of the white-card holders, the article said.
The decision of the government and the Parliament to allow the white-card holders to vote was a lawful act, he said. The person to blame was the official who issued a temporary identity certificate to someone who did not meet the requirements, the article said.
Khin Yi, the minister for immigration and population, told the Irrawaddy News Agency: “It is not easy to say a person will be surely a citizen. The Immigration Department officially issued white cards in accordance with the law. We issue white cards only to the people who need citizenship and they will have to apply for citizenship. Only when they meet the requirements will they become citizens. Just holding a white card doesn’t make someone a citizen.”
That Arakanese influence could increase, too, as a result of the white card revocation.
The government set a precedent in 2010, when it allowed white card holders to vote in the general election that year. As a result, Arakanese politicians were unable to win regional parliamentary seats in some state townships such as Buthidaung and Maungdaw, where the majority of the population is Muslim and tends to view Arakanese parties antagonistically.
Since Burma’s reforms have been skewed so that the central government and the USDP hold the upper hand, RNDP politicians feel that they need to fight hard to gain electoral dominance. For instance, the President has the right to select the Chief Minister for each state from members of the state Parliament, including a quota of military appointees as well as elected representatives. The Chief Minister of Rakhine State is a retired colonel who was the lead USDP candidate in the local elections of 2010.
Basic electoral arithmetic suggests that forced removal of Muslims would benefit the RNDP. Increased anti-Muslim sentiment among the wider population decreases the scope for the government to offer voting rights to a greater number of Muslims. Many repeatedly pointed to local RNDP activists as promoters of anti-Muslim violence.
Arakanese critics have long accused the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of issuing the white cards to win votes, and the constitutional ruling came after a group of Arakanese parliamentarians asked the court to rule on the matter.
Pe Than, a lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP), said the rescinding of temporary identity cards would mean an end to “white card politics.” “First of all, we have found that by giving white card holders the vote, this relates to politics. But they [the government] found that a lot of people in the country are against their policy and even the high court pointed out that this violates the Constitution, so they can no longer play their white card politics.”
With white card holders removed from the voting rolls, Arakanese political parties have high hopes for the outcome of this year’s election, which they expect will see their members take a number of seats in both state and Union legislatures.
The ethnic Bamar-dominated central government is wary of minority influence in state parliaments, where constituencies are heavily populated by ethnic minority voters.
The Arakan State parliament consists of 34 elected members and 12 military-appointed representatives. Arakanese lawmakers hope to win a net six seats in 2015, which would give them a majority of the parliament’s 46 representatives.
Arakanese politicians won 18 seats during the 2010 election. The USDP won 13 seats, and two smaller parties—the National Unity Party and the Asho Chin National Party—both won one seat. But the Burma Army’s 13 representatives have allowed a united USDP-military front to control the legislature.
“They would not have power in parliament, even by working all together, if we win six more representatives in this election. We will have the influence and power in parliament this time,” said Pe Than, pointing to the ability of an Arakanese-majority legislature to dictate the legislature’s agenda and block presidential appointments to the powerful chief minister post as two ways in which the ethnic group would wield the influence that it seeks.