A presidential order revoking temporary identity papers came into effect last night despite widespread criticism by the international community of the government’s move that mostly affects Rohingya Muslims and leaves an estimated 1 million “white card” holders across Myanmar facing an uncertain future.
By Guy Dinmore | Wednesday, 01 April 2015
President U Thein Sein ordered the invalidation of the temporary ID papers on February 11, setting March 31 as the date for their expiry. Holders were given until May 31 to hand in their papers – commonly known as white cards – and undergo a citizen verification process carried out by local authorities to determine their status.
The upper house of parliament had voted on February 2 to approve a presidential proposal that would have allowed white-card holders to vote in a constitutional referendum scheduled for May. But protests largely driven by Buddhist nationalists, monks and parties representing the Buddhist majority in Rakhine State led to a swift government U-turn ordering cards to be revoked.
Uncertainties surrounding the new verification process, which human rights groups fear could lead to widespread denial of citizens’ rights, including health and education, have raised tensions in Rakhine State, where communal violence erupted in 2012. Many among the 140,000 Rohingya living in camps the UN describes as “abysmal” say they will refuse to hand in their cards.
The UN refugee agency said yesterday it was still seeking clarification from the authorities to understand the full implications of the decision to revoke the temporary papers.
“UNHCR will continue to advocate for the protection of individuals no matter what their citizenship status and for some form of documentation to be given to these people in order for them to enjoy their basic rights and live in a dignified manner,” the agency said.
Pierre Péron, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), said in a reference to the government’s refusal to accept Rohingya as an ethnic identity in processing citizenship that the UN upholds the right to self-identity.
“We would welcome any process that provides a just and equitable resolution to the citizenship issue in line with international human rights standards,” Mr Péron said.
“Many of the 140,000 displaced people and up to 1 million people with undetermined citizenship in Rakhine State are living in dire conditions with limited access to basic services such as healthcare,” he said in a statement.
“Restrictions on people’s freedom of movement severely compromise their basic rights to food, health, education and livelihood, thus reinforcing their reliance on humanitarian aid.”
A senior aid official closely following the issue, who asked not to be named, said the most critical issue for the government to clarify was what kind of document, if any, would be issued when white cards were surrendered. The minimum requirement would be a document that entitled people to legal residence in Myanmar, he said.
The government said on February 11 that cards would be revoked in a “fair and transparent manner” by local officials, but it has not fully explained what would replace them.
Apart from hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who hold temporary papers, there are also large numbers of ethnic Indian and Chinese white-card holders.
In her March 16 report to the UN Human Rights Council, Yanghee Lee, special rapporteur for Myanmar, said she was concerned about any provision in the government’s Rakhine Action Plan that would classify Rohingya as “illegal aliens”. The plan has not been made public.
“The expiry at the end of March 2015 of the temporary white cards held by many Rohingyas as identity documentation raises more uncertainties and further increases their vulnerability,” Ms Lee said.
The US State Department has also criticised the government’s decision to invalidate temporary identity cards. Tom Malinowski, US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, said on February 12 that “invalidating white cards for Rohingya in Burma is counter to the reconciliation in Rakhine and inclusive elections the government says it wants”.
White cards were initially issued from 1993 as a temporary measure pending a process to verify residents’ claims to citizenship.
The Ministry of Immigration has given estimates varying from 500,000 to 1 million for the number of white-card holders in Myanmar. Most are in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states.
Unofficial estimates put the total at 1.5 million. The issue is compounded by large numbers of forged identity papers. Ministry officials were not available for comment yesterday.
Rakhine State’s Buddhist majority was angered when the Union Solidarity and Development Party handed out an unknown number of new white cards ahead of the 2010 election, when holders were allowed to vote. The USDP won the elections, which were boycotted by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), and took most of the seats representing Rakhine State.
A separate law has forced political parties to expel members who hold associate or temporary citizenship. The move has largely affected the NLD, which says it will help its former members to apply for full citizenship, as well as parties representing Rohingya.