Burma’s Junta Seeks to Legitimize Its Rule

In an attempt to legitimize its rule via a substantial vote, Burma’s junta is rushing to register as much of its brutalized and downtrodden population as possible in advance of its May 10 national constitutional referendum in a process that is fraught with irregularities and open to serious abuse.

As the referendum approaches, there are continued concerns over the issue of identity cards and nationality. The ruling State Peace and Development Council is encouraging everyone over 18 years old to get an ID card as a prerequisite to vote although there is little reason to believe that the vote, no matter how sizeable, will produce anything like real democracy.

The SPDC announced plans on 9 February for the referendum in the fourth step in its ‘seven step roadmap to disciplined democracy’ announced in August of 2003. It follows the holding of a ‘National Convention’, a confidence-building phase, and the drafting of a new constitution. The constitution, which only became available publicly early this month, is regarded by most Burma watchers as an attempt by the regime to put a facade of democracy on politics in Burma, while still keeping their hands firmly on the reins of power.

After the crackdown on protest last September and October that took the lives of scores of people and the jailing of hundreds more, Burmese opposition groups both inside and outside the country have called the referendum a sham and are asking the population to vote no. Many observers feel that the junta will manipulate the voting process to ensure passage. A law was passed which makes it illegal to agitate against the referendum and stipulates a three year prison term or a heavy fine.

There are increasing reports of intimidation of opposition activists, including severe beatings and the training of paramilitary thugs believed to be part of the Swan Ah Shin groups that broke up the September protests. Many Burmese believe their no votes will simply be changed to yes votes somewhere between the polling station and the capitol, Naypyidaw, where the regime has said the ballots will be counted and the results announced.

Citizens without ID cards won’t be allowed to vote. The rush to register as much of the population as possible has members of the police, Immigration Department, local township authorities, Women’s Affairs Union and the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) working overtime before the registration process finishes tomorrow.

According to Aung Htoo of the Burma Lawyers’ Council, “everyone can get an identity card.” Most of the people registering are being given what are known as “white cards” for their color, temporary identity certificates allowing non-citizens to travel through the country. The temporary cards are good for five years and the government has promised that they will be exchanged for permanent citizenship cards after the 2010 general elections.

The full-fledged “red” national citizenship cards are issued at the age of 12. These cards are then exchanged for an adult card at the age of 18 and later a final time at 35. Even with these cards, Burmese were required to get travel passes from the local authority if they wish to travel anywhere.

The process for acquiring an identity card used to be difficult, time consuming and expensive, which is why many never made the effort to get one. Others, especially in areas where ethnic or communist insurgencies have been ongoing for decades, have never been able to get identity cards. They are being issued for the first time in areas of Kachin State under the control of the Kachin Independence Organization, in Shan State under the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Army-Kachin in Mon State under the New Mon State Party and in Karen State under the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.

There has not been a systematic census in Burma since before the Second World War when the country was still a British colony. The insurgencies along the frontiers and the reluctance of ceasefire groups to allow SPDC authorities into their areas to ask questions has made it impossible. Without a proper census it is almost impossible to gain a proper idea of how much of the population is over 18 and thus eligible to vote. It also makes it impossible to tell how many people are really Burmese.

What has been collected have been family registration lists. These lists, usually compiled by the Army or township authorities and not the Immigration Department, the Karen Human Rights Group contends are used more for intelligence purposes or as inventories of goods that can be extorted or “taxed” from civilians.

The white cards do not specify nationality and while the referendum law specifically states that foreigners are not allowed to vote, authorities are reportedly unconcerned with whether the people registering are Burmese or not. Chinese in particular have been acquiring the cards as a way of being able to stay in Burma. The Shan Herald Agency for News, an opposition news agency based in Thailand, has reported thousands of Chinese receiving white cards in Namkham, Muse and Panghsai townships of Shan State. They also report that for US$150 Chinese in Dulao across the border in China from Mongla and Thais in Chiang Mai province across the border from Burma’s Mongton can purchase cards.

While most Chinese are interested in the cards as a way to stay in the country and do business, many are also after them because of the promise of full-fledged citizenship cards after the referendum and national election in 2010. There is already a fear among many Burmese of being overwhelmed by Chinese migrants. Many cite the huge Chinese population of Burma’s second city, Mandalay, as an example. It is perhaps not too spurious to assume that many of Chinese, grateful for the chance to legitimize their presence in Burma may vote “yes” in the referendum.

Ironically, while Chinese migrants will be allowed to vote in the election, hundreds of thousands of Burmese nationals working outside the country, especially in Thailand, but also in Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan, are not. Absentee ballots are only allowed for diplomats, businessmen and students studying abroad with government permission. Workers outside the country must go back to their homes to register for identity cards and then come back again to vote. This is too much for many migrants who are too preoccupied with daily survival.

Another group which is receiving identity cards for the first time are the Muslim Rohingya in Burma’s Western Arakan State. Denied citizenship since independence in 1949, the Rohingya were given the opportunity to register, some through a UNHCR supported process, in August 2007. Rohingyas in Maungdaw reportedly began receiving the cards on 22 March. According to Aung Htoo this has resulted in some increased support for the SPDC’s constitution among the Rohingya.

Those who will not be allowed to vote are “persons serving prison terms, having been convicted under order or sentence of a court for any offence.” However, there have been reports of prisoners being offered reduced sentences if they vote ‘yes’ or even of monks detained in the crackdown following the September protests being given lay person identity cards so they can vote.

In addition to the abuse potential of the cards themselves, authorities have used the opportunity of registration to encourage people to vote through subtle, and some not so subtle, threats. In Shan State, people were reportedly told their names would be taken off the citizenship rolls if they did not call their family members home from working in Thailand to vote.

The Shan Herald Agency for News claims that residents of Muse, Nang Kham and Kengtung have been told while submitting applications for identity cards that they would “face problems” if they did not support the referendum. Some authorities have threatened that if people vote ‘no’ they will receive jail time or heavy fines for “disintegration of the Union.”

Other authorities have been accused of only issuing identity cards to people who pledge to vote yes. The Karen human rights organization reports that village heads have been threatened with arrest if their villagers do not register. While some of these claims may be rumors, many reports from areas as diverse as Kachin, Shan, Mon, Karen and Arakan States show a pattern of intimidation.

The threat of phantom voters is also a real possibility. The temporary white cards do not have space for photos, making it impossible to tell whether the person presenting the card is really the owner. A high level of illiteracy means that the only identifying mark for many identity card holders is a thumb print, which harried poll workers will likely not take too much notice of. In some areas brokers have been used to obtain cards. All that is necessary is to send money along with personal details and the broker places his own thumbprint on the card. The Karen rights group has reported incidents of authorities arriving to take the personal details, signatures and thumbprints of villagers, but never returning with the identity cards. According to Aung Htoo there is a fear that USDA members may be used to vote repeatedly. For some, the simple possibility of receiving a full citizenship card after the referendum and 2010 election is incentive for some people to vote yes.