Myanmar authorities have collected about 40,000 temporary identification cards from displaced and stateless Rohingya Muslims in restive Rakhine state, part of the process of applying for citizenship, an official said Monday.
Khin Soe, an immigration officer in the state capital Sittwe, said more than 10,000 of the “white cards” were being collected daily in the western Myanmar state, following a declaration by President Thein Sein in February that they would expire on March 31.
The move came about because of a bill that would have allowed white card holders to vote in a referendum on constitutional amendments, which drew sharp opposition from Buddhist nationalists.
Most of the temporary identification card holders are persecuted Rohingya, a Muslim minority of around 1 million people who live in Rakhine (Arakan) state. The Myanmar government refers to the Rohingya as “Bengali” because it views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many have lived in the country for generations.
“From April 1 to April 5, we collected 44,651 cards,” Khin Soe told RFA’s Myanmar service. “According to that rate, we will collect all white cards within a monthly or slightly longer.”
There are a total of about 700,000 white card holders in Rakhine state, and 37 immigration groups have been collecting the cards around the state, he said.
The Rohingya must turn in all the cards by May 31 so they can apply for Myanmar citizenship by June 1, according to the citizenship law of 1982, he said.
The citizenship law does not recognize the term Rohingya as an ethnic minority of Myanmar, so that members of the group cannot obtain government documentation by using the term to identify themselves.
Khin Soe said white card holders would have to show proof of a long family history in Rakhine state if they wanted to obtain Myanmar citizenship and have an identity card again, according to a report last week in The Irrawaddy online journal.
Authorities backed by security personnel visited nearly a dozen camps where the Muslim Rohingya have been housed since they were displaced by a violent and deadly clash with majority Buddhists in 2012, Agence France-Presse reported last week. About 140,000 Rohingya have been displaced by violence since then.
It was unclear whether those who surrendered their cards would be able to begin the citizenship process, the report said, because they do not have any other form of national identification.
But those who give up their white cards receive a “receipt” to prove they had a temporary identity card and can begin the citizenship verification process in June, Khin Soe said, according to The Irrawaddy report.
Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, said the expiration of the temporary white cards raised more uncertainties about the status of the Rohingya and further increased their vulnerability, according to a news release by the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK following a Rohingya panel discussion at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 18.
Lee also warned that Myanmar was backsliding because of continued discriminatory restrictions on the freedom of movement of Muslim internally displaced persons, which also infringed on other basic fundamental rights, the news release said.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a research and advocacy group that focuses on the northern part of Rakhine state, denounced the citizenship verification process and the cancellation of white cards, because it could lead to a total exclusion of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the news release said.
She believes that the withdrawal of the white cards goes beyond denial of the right to vote and risks leaving the Rohingya without any legal documentation and the right to reside in Myanmar, it said.
White cards were issued by Myanmar’s former military junta for the 2010 elections, which saw Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government take power from the regime. An army-backed political party won seats in areas with sizable numbers of white card holders.
White card holders in the process of applying for citizenship include members of other ethnic minorities such as the Kokang and Wa, and people of Chinese and Indian descent, in addition to roughly half a million Rohingyas.
In early February, the Myanmar parliament approved a proposal by Thein Sein to allow people with temporary identification “white cards,” most of whom were Rohingya, to vote on a referendum on constitutional amendments to the country’s junta-backed constitution, which could come as early as May.
Hundreds of people took to the streets in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon on Feb. 11 to protest the government’s decision to allow people without citizenship, including Rohingya, to take part in the referendum.
Reported by Min Thein Aung of RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.