Thursday, 2 October 2014

President signs amendment to party registration law

By Bill O'Toole   |   Thursday, 02 October 2014

 President U Thein Sein has signed off on a controversial amendment to an electoral law that will ban "temporary citizens" from forming or joining political parties. 

The bill to amend the Political Parties Registration Law was sent to the President's Office on September 26, after being approved by both houses of parliament, said U Myint Soe, a deputy director general in the hluttaw office in Nay Pyi Taw. It was signed into law three days later, he said.

While the bill applies to all parties and religious and ethnic communities in Myanmar, it is in effect part of a larger battle over the political rights of Muslims in Rakhine State who identify as Rohingya but are officially regarded as Bengalis.

First proposed in 2013, the bill is one of three submitted by the Rakhine National Party that are aimed at revoking the voting and political assembly rights of those holding temporary identification documents, commonly referred to as white cards.

These are most common in northern Rakhine State, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims were issued white cards instead of the Citizenship Scrutiny Cards that were given to citizens elsewhere in the country starting from the early 1990s.

Under the previous version of the Political Parties Registration Law, all citizens and "temporary certificate holders" are eligible to apply to start a political party provided they have 15 eligible members at the time of application.

After the application, the party has 90 days to sign up at least 500 eligible members if it plans to compete only in regional elections, or 1000 members to compete in national elections.

Rohingya activists and MPs told The Myanmar Times that they believe the new law is an attempt to strip their communities of political representation.

U Khin Maung Myint, a leading member of the National Democrat Party for Development – one of at least three registered political parties with leadership who identifies as Rohingya – said that the amendment would "derail" any chance of reconciliation between the state's Muslims and Buddhists.

"[The parliament has the power] to pass this law, but they will have to deal with the consequences," he said.

However, U Aye Maung, the deputy leader of the RNP, said the amendment was "crucial" for the resolution of conflict in the state.

He told The Myanmar Times that any white card-holder who wishes to establish or join a political party would be able to do so by first applying for citizenship under the terms of the 1982 Citizenship Law.

He said it was important to separate those with a legitimate claim to citizenship from illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

"Some of the Muslim [white card-holders] will be [full citizens] – maybe two-thirds or one-third," he said. "Reality is very important. Where they come from, what they're doing, what they want."

The immediate impact of the law – and how long the Union Election Commission will give parties to ensure they comply – remains unclear. A UEC spokesperson said last week it had not yet received a copy of the approved amendment.

U Shwe Maung, a Pyithu Hluttaw representative from Buthidaung in Rakhine State and a self-described Rohingya, said the bill could lead to all Rohingya-associated political parties being disbanded before the elections because they would be unable to find enough eligible members to meet the criteria in the law.

While the amendment means that the National Democrat Party for Development will have to eject some members who do not meet citizenship requirements, U Khin Maung Myint said he is confident his party can stay above the 1000-member mark so it can compete in the 2015 general election.

Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based independent political analyst, said the law is significant less for its immediate impact and more for the precedent it sets for other amendments proposed by the RNP.

"This change in the law sets a precedent for the disenfranchisement of white card holders. And while at the moment they are still able to vote, it remains to be seen how long they will be able to retain that right," he said.

U Shwe Maung echoed Mr Horsey's comments, saying he could easily see the bill being the first step toward those who identify as Rohingya losing what few rights they have.

"I really worry," he said. "If people cannot vote, how can we do politics? It is a fundamental right of the citizen."

U Shwe Maung said that while he agrees broadly that only citizens should be allowed to vote, he believes most Muslims holding white cards would be eligible for citizenship if the government processed their applications according to the law.

He said that when the switch was made from NRCs to CSCs in the early 1990s, the applications of many Muslims in Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Sittwe were "left pending".

"In 1994 the government instead issued white cards," said U Shwe Maung, who represents the Union Solidarity and Development Party. "We know these cards are not valid according to the 1982 Citizenship Law. It is quite unfair [that applicants were given white cards] – they are the descendants of citizens."

But U Aye Maung dismissed the suggestion that many Muslims in Rakhine State had their citizenship revoked by the government in the 1990s.

"Many Muslims say this," he said. "But I don't believe their words."

The President's Office did not respond to requests for comment. – Additional reporting by Thomas Kean

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