YANGON — Hundreds of people demonstrated in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, today (Feb 11) to protest a government decision to allow people without full citizenship, including members of the Rohingya ethnic minority, to vote in an upcoming constitutional referendum.
Most Muslim Rohingya are not citizens, and prejudice against them is high in the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Parliament plans to debate several constitutional amendments. It recently approved a proposal by President Thein Sein to allow people with temporary identification cards, such as Rohingya, to vote in a referendum tentatively planned for May.
Communal tensions have led to violence in recent years which left at least 280 people dead and 140,000 homeless, mostly Muslims confined to squalid camps in the western state of Rakhine.
The temporary identification cards, popularly called “white cards”, were created by the former military regime for the 2010 elections in which it relinquished power to a nominally civilian government, though under heavy army influence. An army-backed political party won seats in areas with sizable numbers of white card holders.
White card bearers are technically in the process of applying for citizenship. In addition to Rohingya, they include members of ethnic minorities such as the Kokang and Wa, and people of Chinese and Indian descent.
Parliament originally voted against allowing white card holders to vote in the referendum, but reversed itself after an appeal from Mr Thein Sein. The government has been under pressure from Western nations and rights groups over its treatment of Rohingya, and Mr Thein Sein may have been trying to appease those critics.
Domestically, however, the move has been sharply criticised.
Most of those protesting today were Rakhine Buddhists, and the crowd of about 300 included at least 70 Buddhist monks.
“White card holders are not citizens and those who are non-citizens don’t have the right to vote in other countries. This is just a ploy by politicians to win votes,” said Buddhist monk Shin Thumana.
Lower house lawmaker Thein Nyunt said the government’s policy toward white card holders is inconsistent because they are banned from voting in general elections but allowed to vote in the referendum. White card holders are not allowed to join political parties.