When Myanmar’s Parliament voted on February 2 to approve a bill governing regulations for a planned referendum on constitutional amendments, it unleashed a firestorm. Included in the bill was a provision explicitly allowing holders of temporary ID cards – also known as “white cards” – to vote in the referendum.
White cards are primarily held by Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Despite Rohingya’s decades-old presence in the area, many in Myanmar, particularly Rakhine Buddhists, consider them to be illegal immigrants. The military regime provided white cards in the 1990s as temporary documentation pending a citizenship verification process that never materialized. This left Rohingya and other minorities that hold the cards in a precarious legal limbo.
White card holders were allowed to vote in past elections, including the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 parliamentary elections – both widely seen as fraudulent. But following inter-communal violence that rocked Rakhine State in 2012 and continues to simmer, the question of white card holder suffrage has emerged as a hot-button political issue.
Opponents contend that it amounts to granting the vote to foreigners. As a result, the Rakhine National Party (RNP) vowed to fight the decision and challenged the constitutionality of the law in court – a challenge that was endorsed by Myanmar’s Constitutional Tribunal on February 16. Angry Rakhine Buddhists, led by nationalist monks, protested in Yangon and townships across Rakhine State.
President Thein Sein ultimately caved to the pressure. Only a day after signing the controversial bill into law, on February 11 he issued an executive order that all white cards will expire on March 31, effectively overriding the granting of suffrage to their holders.
The episode highlights the explosive politics surrounding Rohingya in 2015 and the confusing arrangement of political forces aligned on either side.
While many human rights advocates have accused President Thein Sein and his government of stoking anti-Rohingya sentiment, his moves seem increasingly confused and easily influenced by populist public pressure. His flip-flopping on the suffrage question demonstrates his inability to navigate competing demands from domestic voices vilifying all Rohingya and international actors calling on the government crack down on hate speech and respect Rohingya rights.
Meanwhile, veteran democracy campaigners are split. Some have stood up for Rohingya rights. But several lawmakers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) signed on to the RNP’s legal challenge against the bill, and an NLD MP initially proposed removing the clause granting suffrage to white card holders back in November.
Suu Kyi herself has been reluctant to speak out forcefully in support of Rohingya rights. Appearing to support Rohingya citizenship could be political suicide in a country where anti-Muslim sentiment is rising rapidly, and some of her closest advisers, who wield substantial influence over her decision-making, are Rakhine Buddhists.
Then there are the electoral implications. Many see the referendum rules as a preview of regulations for the general election planned for late 2015. Several Myanmar politicians voiced concern that the granting of suffrage to white card holders represents a vote-buying scheme by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Majority-Rohingya townships in Rakhine State voted strongly for the party in 2010. If Rohingya are not allowed to vote in future elections, it could undermine the USDP’s prospects in Rakhine State and benefit the otherwise-dominant RNP (hence that party’s particularly strong stance on the issue).
The debate distracts, however, from a far more pressing concern at stake: the need to amend the deeply antidemocratic 2008 constitution. With heavy media focus on white card suffrage, critical questions about other parts of the recently passed referendum bill have been overlooked.
Few – even among veteran politicians – seem to know the referendum’s precise intended outcome. Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann has insisted that no amendments will be fully approved prior to the 2015 general election. But if the referendum, which is tentatively scheduled for May, is intended as an official up-or-down vote on specific constitutional changes passed by Parliament, that assertion seems misguided, since the vote would constitute the final stage of the amendment process. Alternatively, the referendum could simply be a general gauge of popular opinion on constitutional change. In that case, it would be essentially meaningless – just another stalling tactic of the military and political establishment.
Moreover, the military remains vehemently opposed to changing key articles that would loosen its control over Myanmar’s political system. Regardless of any public referendum, without some movement on that front, real constitutional reform will not be possible.
In the end, all that the referendum bill and the associated frantic politicking achieved was to strip Rohingya and other vulnerable minorities of the only documents they had. As conditions in Rakhine State worsen and anti-Muslim sentiment grows nationwide, prospects for resolving the Rohingya question look bleak. A durable solution to the problem likely must involve citizenship for Rohingya. But that will be an even more difficult task to accomplish – one that the current government (and likely future governments as well) will be loath to attempt.
Oren Samet is an independent journalist and researcher based in Bangkok, Thailand.