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800,000 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar face displacement

Press Trust of India  |  Geneva 

The fate of an estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims is uncertain as their temporary residence permit expires by the end of this month, the UN's special envoy for Myanmar warned today.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said, "There are about 800,000 (white card holders) Rohingya. But by the end of this month if it (white cards) expires and they have to turn it in and enter another process by May, it is very troubling because there has been no significant plan or portrayed in any reports that I have seen of what this entire process will mean and how it will affect the white card holders".

According to the 1982 Citizenship Law, the white card - a temporary residence permit- is one of the many colour-coded cards used by the government to signify the status of a resident of Myanmar.

Though the white card holders were allowed to vote in 2010 and 2012, however, a notification from President Thein Sein's office recently said the cards would expire on March 31.

White cards holders will now be required to hand them over to the authorities by May 31 and apply for citizenship.

The decision came after a huge controversy which followed after the Myanmar president granted white card holders the right to vote in a referendum on constitutional amendments.

The decision was met with much uproar from nationalist Buddhist monks.

"Although some of the Rohingya have been living for generations but since they could not prove their status when the 1982 Citizenship Law came into effect (they got a white card)," Lee noted.

In Myanmar, more than 80 per cent of the population are Buddhists and about four to five per cent are Muslims.

"Among the Muslims, whereas the Kamans are considered an ethnic group, the Rohingya are not, according to the 2008 constitutional reforms. There are many, many implications of this on their political participation," said Lee.

Speaking of the abysmal conditions in the volatile Rakhine state, Lee said, "I have stressed on numerous occasions that Rakhine Buddhist community's grievances should be fully heard and understood. But that does not mean the Rohingya should be overlooked".

In her first report to the UNHRC since her appointment in June 2014, Lee states, "Both government and Rakhine Buddhist representatives explained that the term Rohingya has no historical or legal basis and that to validate the Rohingya as an ethnic group could allow a claim of indigenous status and corresponding rights under the Constitution".

"The government has therefore insisted that persons identifying as Rohingya be classified as Bengali, which links their ethnic origins to Bangladesh," it states.

Lee said in that though Myanmar has made advances, there are "worrying signs of backtracking" on human rights.

India had supported Myanmar at the UNHRC during the presentation of the report, saying "Democratic institutions in any country take time to acquire deep roots".

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First Published: Wed, March 18 2015. 22:13 IST