The Rakhine National Party (RNP) and some civil society organisations have voiced their opposition to parliament’s decision to allow holders of temporary identification documents, or white cards, to vote in the constitutional referendum.
In a statement on 3 February, the ethnically Arakanese RNP have vowed to “relentlessly fight” the move which would allow the stateless Rohingya people – a majority of whom carry white cards –in western Burma’s Arakan State, to vote in the referendum. Protests will be made “via various means”, groups have said.
Boe Min, deputy chairperson of the RNP, told DVB that the party would stage mass street protests to reverse the parliament’s decision if necessary.
“We see it is inconsistent that parliament has decided to allow white card holders to vote, while the Union Election Commission says that they are not allowed to form a party or be a member of a party,” said Boe Min.
He said there are over 700,000 white card holders in Arakan State.
Tha Pwint, a community leader from the state capital of Sittwe, said that a brainstorming meeting between Arakanese civil society groups has been organised for 7 February to discuss methods of protest against the issue.
“We will weigh-up whether to stage individual protests in the 17 townships across the state, or to march from one town to another. There is also the possibility to boycott the elections,” Tha Pwint told DVB.
Parliament on Monday debated the National Referendum for Constitution Amendments bill, and voted in line with President Thein Sein’s recommendation to extend voting rights to white card holders.
Ko Ni, a Rangoon-based High Court lawyer, said that it is right to grant suffrage to white card holders.
“There are other laws in place – the Pyithu Hluttaw [lower house] Election Law, Amyotha Hluttaw [upper house] Election Law and State/Region Hluttaw [Regional parliament] Election Law – all of which provide voting rights for white card holders. The president had pointed out that denying them the vote in the referendum would be contradictory,” said Ko Ni.
He added: “According to immigration law, the temporary identification documents are granted to individuals who have the chance to become citizens in the future, as opposed to foreigners. I say that this decision is the right call.”
The proposal was approved by a vote from MPs, with 328 votes in support, 79 objections and 19 abstentions.
Pe Than, an RNP lower house MP from Myebon township of Arakan State, said that parliament’s Joint Bill Committee had previously rejected the president’s recommendation in a debate on 2 February, but later backtracked on their stance.
“The secretary of the Joint Bill Committee Saw Hla Tun urged them to ignore the president’s recommendation, but Tatmadaw [Burma Army] MPs, U Shwe Maung and Wa and Kokang ethnic MPs supported the president’s recommendation,” Pe Than said to DVB.
“There was a 30 minute break before the voting. After the break, the Joint Bill Committee had backtracked. On behalf of the committee, U Saw Hla Tun suggested that the president’s recommendation was appropriate,” he added.
Pe Than said another Arakanese MP, Ba Shein from Kyaukphyu, objected to this suggestion from the committee, but parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann ignored his remarks. The voting went ahead. Ba Shein accused the speaker of pressuring the Joint Bill Committee to go back on their words.
“There is no way that U Saw Hla Tun would do a complete U-turn on the committee’s words without a nod from U Shwe Mann,” he said.
“He backtracked on it without even discussing it with other committee members. I assume this was due to pressure from the speaker.”
The Arakanese MPs in the debate argued that white card holders should not be allowed voting rights, claiming that allowing non-citizens to vote would be in breach of Article 4 of the 2008 Constitution which reads: “The sovereign power of the Union is derived from the citizens, and is in force in the entire country.”