June 12, 2015edge review

A woman places her ballot into the Pyithu Hluttaw representative election box in the April 2012 by-elections (Htoo Tay Zar/Wikimedia commons).

Myanmar’s election officials are on an unprecedented charm offensive

In a few short months, Myanmar’s reformist government will face its most important test to date: nationwide elections that, if successful, will cement the legitimacy of the country’s political reforms over the past few years.

Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC), founded in March 2010 to oversee that year’s national elections, is again at the helm. Those elections, widely decried by observers as neither free nor fair, brought the current government to power.

Despite inroads by opposition parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), parliament remains dominated by ex-military figures, and 25-percent bloc of serving officers holds an effective veto.

With regard to overseeing polls, the UEC’s track record is mixed. No foreign election observers were allowed into Myanmar for the 2010 polls, and by-elections in 2012 – in which Suu Kyi won her seat in parliament – were marred by allegations of fraud and intimidation.

In the run-up to the polls, expected to be held in November, the UEC is trying to burnish its image with a public drive to register voters and educate citizens about the electoral process. This time around, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) – a Washington-based support group – is providing the UEC with unprecedented technical support and assistance to ensure a transparent process.

With IFES’ support, the UEC launched a well-publicised voter registration drive in January 2014 to update outdated, inaccurate voter lists. By the end of May it had digitised 29 million names, creating the world’s largest Myanmar-language digital database, according to IFES country head Paul Guerin.

Four million more names are expected to be added in the next few weeks, and commission member Win Kyi says the final electoral list will be finished in about two months.

The database is accessible via a slick website for verification by the general public, complementing lower-tech ways for people to check their status against the official roster.

The UEC has also distributed millions of voter education pamphlets detailing the registration process, and produced four “soap operas” to the same effect, broadcast on TV and online and starring popular actors.

As in 2010, the commission’s executive remains stacked with former high-ranking military personnel. Chairman Tin Aye was a lieutenant-general before the reforms, and used to head Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL), one of two shadowy, sprawling conglomerates owned by the military.

He is widely rumoured to have been a key money manager for retired strongman Than Shwe, who stepped down in 2011, and is known to have brokered arms deals with North Korea on the military’s behalf.

At a rare UEC briefing on Monday, Tin Aye made it clear that one topic was strictly off limits. “You can ask me any questions you like, but not about my personal eligibility to be commissioner,” he told the press.

The commission members’ backgrounds at the military’s highest echelons have raised questions about its independence. Most pressingly, it has the power to cancel elections in townships of its choosing on security grounds.

In the 2012 by-elections, the UEC cancelled the vote in three townships in Kachin State, in areas that had seen a lull in fighting between the military and ethnic insurgents, a move that raised the hackles of opposition politicians.

According to Tin Aye, voting will take place in 323 of Myanmar’s 330 townships if the current security situation holds. Without naming the seven left out, he claimed that the UEC had been unable to compile voter lists in the restive Kokang region of northeastern Shan State as well as in the territories controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a de-facto microstate supported by drug revenues along the Chinese border where roughly half a million people live.

Another concern is the electoral fate of the approximately one million benighted Rohingya in Myanmar’s far west. In an attempt to stave off a sweep by ethnic Rakhine Buddhist nationalist parties, the military permitted Rohingya to vote in the 2010 polls despite them not being recognized as citizens under the law.

Although in February President Thein Sein announced that holders of “white cards” – non-citizen IDs carried primarily by Rohingya – would be allowed to vote in the upcoming election, a torrent of popular outrage prompted him to backtrack indirectly, by allowing the validity of white cards to lapse.

Last week, the government quietly announced a scheme to provide former holders of white cards with a new turquoise ID, which omits otherwise-mandatory details about race and religion.

Although the government started a process to “verify” Rohingya citizenship rights last year, the pilot program was halted in February, ostensibly because most Rohingya refused to be classified as “Bengali”, a term implying foreign origins that they find pejorative.

Tin Aye said parliament was still discussing final voting procedures, but suggested that “eligible” holders of some kinds of ID, other than the pink document that grants full rights of citizenship, would be allowed to vote, provided their names were on the final voter list.

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