A political party representing Myanmar’s persecuted ethnic Rohingya is pressing election authorities to allow members of the Muslim minority who hold temporary “white card” IDs to vote and to run in November nationwide elections.
Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya — more than 740,000 of whom were driven out of their communities in northern Rakhine state in a military-led crackdown and took refuge in Bangladesh in 2017 — has brought Western sanctions and war crimes charges against the country’s military in international courts.
Before the mass expulsions, however, Rohingyas in the majority Buddhist country struggled against discrimination, being denied citizenship and widely viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — and derisively called “Bengalis” though many have lived in Myanmar for generations and the group has a longer history in Rakhine.
The Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), which represents the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state, says holders of “white cards” issued by the Immigration Ministry as temporary IDs for Rohingya who are not verified Myanmar citizens, should be able to vote or contest elections in November for both houses of the national parliament as well as for state and regional assemblies.
More than 1 million Rohingya from Rakhine state who held white cards were permitted to vote in 2010, when Rohingya candidates from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won parliamentary seats in the election.
But the right to vote was taken away from the cardholders in 2013 under the government of former president Thein Sein, a retired general who ruled Myanmar for five years until handing power to civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016.
Those who hold white cards must apply for citizenship and undergo a vetting process. Along with security, a lack of clarity and certainty about their status is a major reason that Rohingya groups in Bangladesh cite in rejecting appeals to return to Myanmar.
“Rohingyas lost their right to vote and to contest in elections,” DHRP secretary Kyaw Soe Aung told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Now, the Rohingya are asking for the rights that they lost during Thein Sein’s government.”
300,000 Rohingya in northern Rakhine
In a letter to the Union Election Commission (UEC), the DHRP, cited the Rohingyas’ participation in previous elections and referendums under past governments in requesting the UEC to restore the rights, Kyaw Soe Aung said. The DHRP repeated the request during a meeting on June 27, but the commission did not give an answer.
The UEC declined to answer RFA’s questions about the Rohingya voting issue over the phone and said someone would do so only at a press conference.
Asked about the voting right issue, Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the ruling National League for Democracy’s (NLD) Central Information Committee, while stressing that it was his personal opinion, said he agreed that the Rohingya should seek the right to vote.
“The country’s leaders might think that with the way the fighting is going on in this area and with the political situation not being so good that they should suspended the Muslims’ right to vote,” he told RFA, “But they should ask for the right, I believe.”
According to the UEC, more than 300,000 Muslims still live in the northern Rakhine townships of Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and Rathedaung, the scene of the scorched earth expulsions of 2017 and also a conflict zone in a 19-month war between the national army and ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army (AA).
Shwe Maung, a former USDP lower house lawmaker from Rakhine’s predominantly Rohingya Buthidaung township, told RFA that the Rohingya were stripped of their rights to vote and to contest parliamentary seats by authorities who issued another policy in 2015.
“Rohingya Muslims were not allowed to contest in elections for the reason that their parents were not citizens,” he said. “Muslim citizens in the region were not allowed either.”
“When Rohingya lawmakers served in parliament until 2015, they could advocate for Rohingya rights not only in parliament, but also outside of parliament,” Shwe Maung added.
‘Something is wrong’
Aye Lwin, a Muslim community leader who once sat on a government advisory commission on resolving the religious and ethnic divisions in Rakhine state, also called for voting rights for the Rohingya.
“They could vote the 1990 election,” he said. “In the 2010 election, many voted, [and] some of them were elected as USDP candidates and got into parliament.”
“But, they now are unable even to vote,” he added. “Something is wrong. They should get back their right to vote.”
Nickey Diamond, a Myanmar human rights specialist with the Southeast Asia-based NGO Fortify Rights, noted that the Myanmar government must work on the Rohingyas’ right to vote under provisional measures ordered in January by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Myanmar faces genocide-related charges at the ICJ, the U.N.’s top court which settles disputes between nations.
If Myanmar fails to do so, then “the international community will point out the fact that they could vote in the past but now they cannot,” he said.
The UEC has announced that Nov. 8 elections will be held in all townships in Rakhine state, despite the fighting between Myanmar troops and the rebel AA across the northern townships.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.