Myanmar has had a shaky few years of reform. As many commentators have indicated, the process has, at times, seemed to go backwards. That assessment sells short the significant changes the country has made in recent years, yet it highlights the key issues holding the complex process back.

At the heart of the country's problems with reform has been the issue of ethnicity.

A Rohingya refugee camp. (Flickr/European Commission.)

As Robert Taylor noted in a March ISEAS paper, ethnicity has long been a powerful theme in a country boasting 135 ethno-linguistic groups. It has driven politics and policy, led by a strong Buddhist nationalist movement, as far back as the 1920s.  So it is no wonder that as Myanmar undergoes a difficult process of reform, ethnicity remains a sticking point. 

This has been persistently seen in the deplorable situation of the Rohingya and lack of political will from any part of the Government (including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) to address the problem. The Government's muted response to episodes of communal violence and hate speech, as well its patchy response to the 250,000 internally displaced (mostly ethnic peoples), speaks to wider attitudes toward ethnic groups.

Perhaps of greatest concern in the ethnicity debates in Myanmar concerns citizenship. This has culminated in recent moves to revoke temporary identity papers known as white cards.

On 11 February, the Myanmar Government announced that it was cancelling white cards, which serve as temporary ID to otherwise undocumented peoples such as the Rohingya, some ethnically Chinese, and many other ethnic peoples. The exact number of white cards is murky, with estimates ranging between 600,000 and 1.5 million. The cancelling of these documents effective 31 March, ahead of a citizenship verification process that may never occur, will render most white card holders stateless.

White card holders were allowed to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 election. The move to cancel the papers was part of a wider debate on citizenship ahead of the the November elections. The day after the signing of a bill into law that allowed suffrage for white card holders, President Thein Sein issued an executive order that rescinded the same right. The backflip came on the back of a legal challenge by the Rakhine National Party and protests by Rakhine Buddhists. Following the protests, Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy party kicked out 20,000 white card holders from the party's membership. Other parties did the same ahead of scrutiny by the Union Election Commission, which is enforcing requirements that only full citizens are members of Myanmar's 70-odd registered political parties.

The Government is also demanding that white cards be returned by 31 May, which raises the biggest problem. Holders are loath to give up what is for most the only documentation they have. This is a concern first and foremost for the Rohingya, the largest holders of white cards and those under the most pressure to prove their right to citizenship. As the embattled UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar noted, the rescinding of white cards for the Rohingya 'raises more uncertainties and further increases their vulnerabilities'. 

Of similar concern to persistent anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment is the uptick in anti-Chinese sentiments in Myanmar; many ethnic Chinese hold white cards. Anti-Chinese sentiment is centered on unpopular Chinese-led infrastructure projects. Recent incidents — the death of a 50 year-old woman during protests against a Chinese-backed mine and the re-emergence of fighting between the Government and the Kokang, an ethnic Chinese population in the northeast of Myanmar — have significantly increased anti-Chinese sentiments in the country. 

With white card holders unlikely to return the documents, the question arises: to what lengths will the Government go to get them back? 

Following the expiration of the cards at the end of March, this was answered in part when authorities, supported by security personnel,  began collecting white cards from 11 camps on the 1st of April. 

The Government seems to be trying to make some positive moves on ethic issues, though whether they are genuine or just stonewalling will be revealed in due course. Naypyidaw has come under fire for the make-up of the Union Election Commission, the body that oversees the electoral process. The UEC is made up of eight representatives, all of whom are ethnically Burman (see UEC's Strategic Plan here). In what could be a significant development ahead of the November elections, the president last week sent a letter to parliament requesting the addition of eight ethnic members to the UEC (his nominees are reported here). 

With the elections approaching, it is unsurprising that many see the rescinding of white cards and the growing politicisation of ethnicity as a move by the Burman- and Buddhist-majority Government to consolidate their vote. Indeed, much of the current politicking and politicisation of ethnicity is part of electioneering in a country where 31% of representatives will be drawn from ethnic-minority states (44% come from the Burman-majority regions and 25% from the military — Aung Din presents the election math here). 

The politicisation of ethnicity will continue to be a key component of Myanmar's electioneering. White card holders are set to be some of the first casualties, and the spectre of further communal violence looms large.