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As many as 900,000 people have had their citizenship status in Burma cast into doubt as their government-issued “white cards” expired on 31 March.
The white cards granted otherwise stateless people temporary residency. Those who held the cards can apply for citizenship upon handing them in, said an official at the Ministry of Immigration and Population.
Sai Ba Mann, deputy director at the ministry, said white cards had been returned in some townships, including in Arakan State [Rakhine State], but did not provide further figures.
“The President’s Office previously announced a time period to return the cards between April and the end of May. We then issue a receipt to those who return the cards,” said Sai Ba Mann.
“The white cards were issued to individuals who live in Burma, with a period of validity as provided by the law. Just because those cards expired, it doesn’t mean the holders become stateless.
“We are issuing them with receipts as a form of documentation, including a serial number, verifying them as previous white card holders so their status should remain the same,” adding that the former holders could also apply for citizenship at the same time.
Most white card-holders are Rohingya Muslims from Burma’s south western Arakan State.
Following an outpouring of criticism about the right of white card holders to vote, the President’s Office announced in February that the cards would expire at the end of March, and must be handed over to authorities.
A Kaman ethnic white card-holder Ba Than Tun of Kyauknimaw village in Arakan State’s Ramee Island, told DVB that immigration officials led by the township director on Tuesday reminded white card holders in the village to return the cards. He said that as of the following day, no one had yet followed these orders due to concerns over the receipts, which do not mention the holder’s ethnicity but only birthdate, father’s name (effectively used as surname in paperwork in Burma) and address.
“We told the immigration director that we understand we are to return the cards in accordance with the president’s order, but our ethnicity is listed as Kaman in the white cards. We would like that to be mentioned in the receipts but he said he had no instruction to implement this,” said Ba Than Tun.
He added that some villagers used to have citizenship ID cards and other documents, but lost them when their homes were burnt down in the 2012 communal riots.
The Kyauknimaw village in Ramee Island, southern Arakan State, is populated by the Kaman people who are listed among the 135 ethnic groups of Burma.
Kyaw Min, chairman of a Muslim political party the Democracy and Human Rights Party said it should be highlighted that while the government said that white card holders could apply for citizenship, it did not mean that all of the applicants will be granted it.
“Only 200 of over 1000 applicants in the Myebon pilot citizenship verification programme in 2014 were ultimately granted citizenship. The other 800 got nothing. It is the same here; the government only said they can apply, but whether they pass or not is another question,” said Kyaw Min.
The government’s deadline to return the expired white cards has been set at 31 May. According to lower house MP Pe Than of Arakan’s Myebon Township, the Immigration Ministry told lawmakers that there are around 650,000 white card holders in Burma, though others put the figure as high as 900,000.
The most recent white card controversy arose after the bicameral union parliament voted on 2 February to grant voting rights to white card-holders, infuriating Arakanese MPs, who have previously threatened to call public protests to oppose the bill.