*(Monks protesting the right to vote through 'white cards' | courtesy of RohingyaBlogger)*

This week saw a worsening of the plight of the Rohingya as the Burmese government decided to invalidate temporary citizenship cards, also known as ‘white cards’. The cards are identity documents which, until this point, afforded holders with some basic rights such as the right to vote. However, the decision to invalidate the cards by 31 March means that those handing back the documents will be unable to vote in the upcoming constitutional referendum.

The revocation will have a significant impact on the Rohingya population, which accounts for 600,000 of the 700,000 white cards, and comes as a direct result of pressure placed on the Burmese government by the Buddhist majority. Just before the decision was announced, protests took place in 17 towns around Arakan State, with Buddhist monks and other Burmese citizens calling for white card holders to be excluded from the referendum to amend the 2008 Constitution.

Not only is this move concerning in that it deprives thousands of Rohingya of the right to political participation, it also highlights the problems that Rohingya face in being denied the title of ‘Burmese Citizens’. The 1982 Citizenship law has drawn criticism from many human rights organisations for its arbitrary and race-based citizenship criteria. It fails to recognise the Rohingyan nationality as one of those qualifying for full citizenship, and requires anyone wishing to qualify for naturalised citizenship to furnish ‘conclusive evidence’ that their ancestors were settled in Burma before independence was granted in 1948. Although many Rohingya could meet this ancestry criterion, the requirement of evidence puts naturalised citizenship out of reach for those whose documents have been forcibly confiscated by Burmese officials during raids on Rohingya villages.

Given these barriers to full and naturalised citizenship, it is less surprising that the Rohingya account for the majority of white card holders. But even the granting of white cards demonstrated hostility towards Rohingya, in that such cards were only granted to those prepared to register themselves as ‘Bengali’ on the national census. The Burmese government used the white card registration system as a means of undermining the Rohingyan identity. In other contexts, failing to acknowledge the existence of a race has been recognised as a form of ethnic cleansing. This shows that, even before the decision was made to revoke the few rights attaching to the white cards, the system was highly unsatisfactory and prejudicial to the Rohingya.

The recent decision further marginalises the Rohingyan population, and the requirement that the cards are forfeited no later than the end of May will add to the problem which already faces so many Rohingya - the inability to furnish documentary proof showing that they are not the illegal immigrants government propaganda portrays them as being.

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