Residents from several towns across western Burma’s Arakan State held simultaneous demonstrations on Saturday, protesting against the granting of the voting rights in a proposed constitutional referendum to temporary residents, or “white card” holders.
The protests took place in 17 towns around Arakan – also known as Rakhine State – including Sittwe, Kyaukphyu, Maungdaw, Minbya and Mrauk-U.
In Mrauk-U, around 5,000 protesters assembled at around 1pm and began marching.
Tun Nay Win, the organiser of the demonstration in Mrauk-U, said: “We are staging protests across Arakan State against the decision to allow white card holders – who are illegal Bengalis – to vote in the referendum for amendment to the 2008 Constitution.
“The government must officially announce that white card holders will not be allowed to vote in the referendum. This is an utmost right, reserved only for citizens. Now, the government has only declared an alternative plan to revoking white cards, but we see this as lacking certainty.”
Htun Thar Sein, another organiser of the Mrauk-U protest, warned that the protests will be stepped up if the government’s response on the issue is not satisfactory.
“If we pursue our aim with the four elements – courage, wisdom, awareness and unity – it will be impossible not to enact change. We may consider staging sit-ins and even marching to Rangoon, depending on the situation.”
Rakhine National Party Chairman and Upper House MP Aye Maung last week established a petition amongst MPs. Signatories include representatives of the National League for Democracy and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.
The temporary registration cards, or white cards, are ID documents that are issued, in particular, to the non-recognised Rohingya population of Arakan State. An estimated 850,000 people hold white cards, whereby they are denied rights of citizenship but are entitled to vote in elections, including a proposal to allow them to participate in a proposed constitutional referendum later this year.
The 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.
The President’s Office has since announced that the cards will expire at the end of March and must be handed over to authorities, effectively undermining any granting of voting rights.