Myanmar backtracks on minorities' voting rights

- U-turn will stop minorities, including Rohingya Muslims, voting in referendum

By Joshua Carroll

YANGON, Myanmar (AA) – The government of Myanmar appears to have reversed its decision to grant Rohingya Muslims voting rights following protests by Buddhist nationalists who regard the minority as illegal immigrants, state media indicated Thursday.

Government-run news outlets confirmed Thursday that “white card” documents granting non-citizens voting rights would expire at the end of March.

The announcement effectively nullifies a recent decision in parliament to allow the cardholders to vote in a constitutional referendum later this year.

The U-turn came shortly after hundreds of protesters led by Buddhist monks marched through Yangon, the commercial capital, Wednesday to protest parliament’s decision. Demonstrators waved the national flag and held placards reading: “Only citizens can vote in other countries.”

The protests and the decision to withdraw white cards came on the same day that President Thein Sein approved a law allowing a referendum on the country’s military-drafted 2008 constitution to go ahead.

The UN has called on Myanmar to grant the Rohingya full citizenship but there is fierce opposition from nationalists who consider them interlopers from Bangladesh. Rohingya advocates say that many have ancestral roots in Myanmar going back centuries.

Most of Myanmar’s roughly one million Rohingya live in western Rakhine state, where they are subject to apartheid-like conditions following religious rioting in 2012.

Anti-Muslim violence across Myanmar has killed around 280 people since 2012 and blighted the country’s shift from military dictatorship to a more open and democratic society.

Buddhist monks have been accused of stoking violence with sermons preaching that Muslims are a threat to Buddhism and Myanmar.

Thein Sein’s decision to recall white cards has raised fears the Rohingya will be denied the vote in a general election due at the end of the year. The poll could be a potential milestone for democratic reforms if it is free and fair, according to observers.

The cardholders were allowed to vote in a flawed general election in 2010 that swept Thein Sein’s military-backed party to power. However, Rakhine nationalists believe the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party only granted Rohingya suffrage to boost its share of the vote.

The Rohingya are not the only white cardholders affected. Some ethnic Chinese and Indians born in Myanmar also carry the documents.

It is still unclear when the constitutional referendum will happen and which sections of the controversial 2008 charter will be voted on. The opposition National League for Democracy is campaigning to change a clause that bars its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from becoming president.

The party also wants to amend a clause that grants the military a quarter of seats in parliament. The clause effectively gives the generals a veto over constitutional changes, which require a 75 per cent majority.

Activists have criticised the Suu Kyi’s party for opposing suffrage for minorities. The Nobel Peace laureate has long been accused of ignoring the plight of the Rohingya out of fear it will damage her chances of winning the presidency.

Copyright © 2015 Anadolu Agency