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 Immigration Ministry has issued these cards to people who need and want to apply for citizenship,” Khin Soe, an immigration officer in the state capital Sittwe, told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “The advisory commission suggested that we issue the green cards, and we submitted this suggestion to the government. We have issued them according to the Immigration Act when we received permission from the government.”
Authorities have collected about 400,000 temporary identification cards, known as “white cards,” from displaced and stateless Rohingya Muslims in the state in western Myanmar as part of the process of applying for citizenship, he said, adding that the distribution of the green cards began two days ago.
In return, the Muslims have received a light green and blue card containing an identification number, name of the holder, their gender, date of birth, place of birth, marital status and father’s name with visible identification marks in Burmese and English, Khin Soe said.
“We’re giving this card to people who already returned their white cards to us,” he said. “This cardholder can verify that he or she lives in Myanmar, but that person still needs to apply for and be verified for citizenship eligibility.”
“Once a person receives a green card, he can apply for citizenship, and then we will verify them,” he added.
Officials are simultaneously issuing the green cards along with application forms to apply for Myanmar citizenship in 13 townships in Rakhine state, including Sittwe, Mrauk U, Thandwe, Buthidaung and Maungdaw, he said.
The cards are valid for two years after which holders can apply for an extension, he added.
The green cards also enable holders to stay in Myanmar as long as they want without applying for citizenship by repeatedly filing for extensions, he said.
But for green card holders who cannot produce the necessary documents to become a citizen, immigration officials must look to lawmakers for advice on how to handle the situation, Khin Soe said.
Whether the green card holders will be able to vote in Myanmar’s general elections in November hinges upon a law that the country’s Election Commission will issue, Khin Soe said, adding that the body soon would issue guidelines for the card holders.
Collection of white cards
The white cards have been collected in Rakhine since President Thein Sein declared 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 700,000 white card holders are persecuted Rohingya, a Muslim minority of around 1 million whom the government refers to as “Bengali” because it views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many have lived in the country for generations. Myanmar has in recent weeks bristled at international criticism of its treatment of the Rohingya, some of whom were among the migrants found adrift in the sea near the country last month.
The Rohingya were given a May 31 deadline to submit their white cards so they could apply for Myanmar citizenship by June 1, according to the citizenship law of 1982.
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.
White card holders must show proof of a long family history in Rakhine state if they want to obtain Myanmar citizenship and have an identity card.
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.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.