Hundreds of people took to the streets in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon Wednesday to protest a government decision to allow people without citizenship, including Rohingya Muslims, to take part in a referendum on amending the country’s junta-backed constitution.
Parliament last week approved a proposal by President Thein Sein to allow people with temporary identification “white cards,” most of whom are Rohingyas, to vote on charter change in the referendum which could come as early as May.
Some 300 nationalists—mostly Rakhine Buddhists and including at least 70 Buddhist monks—marched in Yangon to express their frustration with the decision, saying that as non-citizens, white card holders should not have the right to vote on the referendum.
“This issue is not only for the Rakhine people, but also for national security and the interests of the whole nation,” Tin Htoo Aung of the Rakhine National Network, which joined Wednesday’s march, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“That’s why we’re protesting today—to preserve and protect our prestige.”
A protester named Zargara told RFA the march was aimed at banning white card bearers from all voting.
“Our plan in the future is to abolish the white card issue entirely.”
The Associated Press quoted Buddhist monk Shin Thumana who called the white card issue “a ploy by politicians to win votes.”
“White card holders are not citizens and those who are non-citizens don't have the right to vote in other countries,” he said.
Hours after the protest, the president’s office issued a statement declaring that the white cards would become invalid at the end of March, reversing the decision that would allow holders to vote in the referendum.
According to the statement, the white cards will expire on March 31, 2015 and holders of the cards are required to hand over them over to authorities by May 31.
“Furthermore, since there have been criticisms from monks and people on the temporary identification cards, a commission on the observation and analysis of the laws and bylaws will be formed with experts and people who should be part of this commission,” it said.
Details of the white card expiration were not provided and it was unclear whether the statement was connected to protests over the decision to allow white card holders to vote in the referendum.
Parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, who is also the head of the ruling party, had earlier referred the decision to the constitutional tribunal, telling reporters he feared public anger could disturb the process of national reconciliation in the nation as it transitions to a democracy.
Lawmakers—including those from Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party—had originally opposed the right of card holders to vote for charter changes, but parliament reversed itself after an appeal from Thein Sein in December.
Observers say the president may have originally been trying to appease Western nations and rights groups which had been critical of the government’s treatment of Rohingyas.
Within Myanmar, Rohingyas are largely seen as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though many have lived in the country for generations.
Deadly violence between Buddhists and Muslims has left at least 280 dead and tens of thousands homeless in Myanmar since 2012, and rights groups say Muslims have borne the brunt of the violence—many of them Rohingyas in Rakhine state.
White cards were created 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 are in the process of applying for citizenship and include members of ethnic minorities such as the Kokang and Wa, and people of Chinese and Indian descent, in addition to roughly half a million Rohingyas.
The United Nations in December passed a resolution urging Naypyidaw to grant Rohingyas access to citizenship which led to protests against the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur to Myanmar Yanghee Lee during her visit to the country last month.
Reported by Pyone Moet Moet Zin, Win Naung Toe and Myo Thant Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Than Than Win. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.