An estimated 850,000 non-citizens of Burma are in danger of losing their voting rights after a government backflip on white cards.
The ID document acknowledges temporary residency and offers voting rights to holders. The President’s Office announced on Thursday that the cards will expire at the end of next month and must be handed over to authorities.
The about-face comes after a recent parliamentary decision to allow white card holders to vote in a proposed referendum on constitutional reform later this year. That decision drew intense ire from Burmese nationalists, who turned out in their hundreds in Rangoon on Wednesday to protest voting rights for non-citizens.
As many as 500,000 white card holders are from the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.
Most of Burma’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims live in apartheid-like conditions in Arakan State in the west of the predominantly Buddhist country. Many in Burma consider them illegal immigrants even though thousands have lived in the region for generations.
“They are foreigners. They have nothing to do with voting. It’s completely senseless to allow these aliens to vote. We cannot tolerate this!” said one Arakanese Buddhist monk attending the rally.
Many fear the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) stands to gain most from the support of non-citizen voters.
In Burma’s 2010 general election, a poll widely regarded as neither free nor fair, the majority of Rohingya votes went to the USDP.
White card holders were also able to vote in a 2008 referendum to approve Burma’s military-drafted Constitution.
Burma’s president has given the green light to hold a referendum this year on amendments to the Constitution, two lawmakers told Reuters on Wednesday.
President Thein Sein gave his approval late on Tuesday, 10 February, to hold the plebiscite, which could take place as early as May. Burma is due to have a general election towards the end of this year.
An Arakanese man protesting in Rangoon on Wednesday said that the government stands to gain political advantage by enfranchising non-citizens.
“The government seems to seek political advantage from the decision by parliament giving voting rights to white card holders. This has created trouble in our Arakan State. They must not be given the right to vote at all,” Hla Swe said.
White cards were intended as temporary documents when first issued in 1995.
Thursday’s announcement, issued via state media, alluded to further citizenship verifications for non-citizens. The statement however made no concrete pledge to put would-be disenfranchised former white card holders on a path to citizenship.