Featured Image: Reuters, Shwe Paw Mya Tin
On October 14, the U.S. Campaign for Burma hosted Burma’s 2020 Election Disenfranchisement: Chin, Karenni, and Mon States, the first event in a series of upcoming webinars that will feature election issues and disenfranchisement in Burma.
The USCB was grateful to be joined by four insightful panelists. Larry Dohrs serves as the chair of the board of directors of the US Campaign for Burma, is a visiting scholar in SE Asian Studies at Texas Christian University, and is a consultant working on justice and equitable development in the region. Cheery Zahau is Country Program Director of the Project 2049 Institute and received the Schuman Human Rights Award, authored several reports to the United Nations, and received the N-Peace Award. Maw Day Myar serves as a project manager with Karenni National Women Organization and previously served with the Women’s League of Burma. Aue Mon is the Program Director of the Human Rights Foundation of Monland and a Management Board member of the Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma (ND-Burma).
To begin the event, Larry Dohrs spoke about the health risks posed by COVID-19 and the effects it has on civilians’ ability to vote. Due to under-resourced health facilities in Burma, the number of COVID-19 cases has become increasingly high and will only be exacerbated if people are standing in line and waiting to vote. Additionally, the Burma Army actively practiced voter intimidation by highly militarizing voting areas and creating conflict to prevent IDPs and civilians from voting. Larry Dohrs spoke on this voter suppression, stating that we’ve seen “some troop movements into certain ethnic minority areas… it’s possible those troops are being sent there for the purpose of dominating the vote.” The internet shut down in Rakhine state also inhibits information sharing- Larry Dohrs stated, “There is an internet blackout in Rakhine state that has been enforced since June 2019, so communication in Rakhine state is basically impossible and it’s pretty hard to accomplish a free and fair election.” The numerous issues facing Burma as election day approaches only serves as a means of suppressing votes and keeping the nation from transitioning to a true democracy.
Secondly, Cheery Zahau began her conversation on election issues in Chin state. In Paletwa township, there are numerous problems with the public voter lists that have been released- many have errors with names of deceased individuals or misspellings. Many villagers will never see these voter lists due to fear of the Burma Army and subsequent security risks, fear of contracting COVID-19, or lack of accessibility to rural villages. It was also noted that the NLD actively ignored letters from political parties asking for the election timeframe to be reevaluated and possibly postponed due to COVID-19. The way elections are being run this year are overall very unclear- Cheery Zahau stated that “decisions around the elections are very poorly managed. The UEC is comprised of 15 members and all staff levels are comprised of the military.” Cheery Zahau also elaborated on the issues surrounding campaigning, stating that there is a very “unhealthy campaigning of buying votes,” where “in theory, we can complain about this to the election commissions… but there is no point in complaining because the UEC is all pro-NLD.” The stifling of ethnic candidates as the NLD continues to control elections will be a major issue come November 8.
Thirdly, Day Myar covered issues in Karenni state. The sub-election commission noted over 207,000 voters on the first voter list, however, this number does not include the 12,000 Karenni refugees who are residing in camps without national ID cards. Due to COVID-19 movement restrictions, civil society organizations are unable to conduct voter education initiatives in Karenni state and most polling stations are 2-3 hours away from the state’s rural villages. In terms of voter registration, Day Myar states that “if you are not in the voter list, you’re not eligible to cast a vote… Most people aren’t interested in checking the list anymore.” There are many flaws in the process of voter registration that have yet to be fixed, and, as Day Myar relayed, the election commissions “ignores support from civil society organizations and local political parties.” As for the candidates running in Karenni state, campaigning is extremely unfair for local parties who are competing with the rich and well-resourced NLD. Day Myar noted that women candidates face a unique challenge during elections, stating that “in politics they never talk about this issue… currently women candidates who run for election face a lot of challenges.” Obstacles such gender-based violence and discrimintion marginalize women candidates who receive limited support from their communities and parties.
Lastly, Aue Mon closed on speaking about Mon state. Although there are about 1.5 million voters in Mon state, it is likely that a mere 50% will show up. Aue Mon stated that this was due to “cancellation of the polling stations in some village tracts due to security concerns and the insufficient access to polling stations in IDP areas and border areas.” Also an issue is lack of voter knowledge- many are unaware of how to cast their ballots and unintentionally invalidate their votes, while the lack of mobile phones and the internet render election information inaccessible for many in Mon state. Some townships have over 40,000 IDPs, many of whom will be excluded from the upcoming election due to lack of IDs. Even for those who are not displaced, voting still poses a challenge due to the long wait time (2-3 weeks) that it takes to be registered. Aue Mon states that he “wants to emphasize the importance of free and fair elections without leaving anyone out. It’s necessary to include all in Burma as we’ve experienced a lot of disenfranchisement and exclusion from a lot of civil and political rights.”
Between Chin, Karenni, and Mon states, there are many shared struggles in regards to voting and ensuring civilians’ rights to vote- in all states, poll accessibility and disenfranchisement of IDPs and refugees are pressing issues. For states like Rakhine and Mon, lack of access to the internet excludes many from information on polling stations, registration, and candidates. Another common problem is the ability to gain a national ID- for many IDPs and refugees across all states, those without IDs lose the right to vote. As noted by all of the speakers, free and fair elections can only truly be ensured when all have the right to vote and the means and knowledge to do so.
In closing, the USCB led a Q&A session that touched upon the importance of first-time voters in Burma’s 2020 elections, as well as next steps to ensuring the inclusion of IDPs and refugees. The USCB was incredibly grateful to hear from such insightful and empowering speakers, and is appreciative of all participants who attended to learn more about the ongoing struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma.