Claims of foul play tarnish ‘free and fair’ polls
Opposition activists and many ordinary citizens fear the electoral rolls have been fixed to sway votes in favour of the ruling party, writes a long-time expert on the country.
Myanmar is in the final throes of preparing for November’s crucial national election, but problems with incorrect electoral rolls are threatening to throw the whole process off track.
As constituency voter lists are systematically released for public inspection, inaccuracies in the information are fuelling fears over whether the polls can be free or fair. Activists estimate up to 80% of the details on lists in some constituencies are incorrect.
Last weekend opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called on people to check published voter lists carefully as she toured Warthinkha village in her Kawhmu township constituency in Yangon region. There she met residents to educate them about scrutinising the lists, before visiting the village commission office to see the local electoral roll for herself.
"In order to vote, names must be included. If the information is incorrect, you won't be able to vote and you won't be able to participate when the system for governing the country is decided," the National League for Democracy leader said.
She urged everyone, including teenagers, to make sure voter lists are accurate.
MAKING SURE: People check voter lists in the village of Warthinkha, two hours from Yangon. Last week, officials announced the much-anticipated general election would be held Nov 8.
"When we scrutinised lists in 10 townships in Yangon, 55% of the data was wrong, meaning half of the eligible voters will be unable to vote and the election result will not match the public's desire."
There are so many errors in voter lists that some - especially the main opposition party - believe the mistakes are deliberate.
"We are very concerned about the accuracy of the lists," NLD spokesman Nyan Win said. "It's not normal errors or the result of negligence. It is deliberate, intended to damage the NLD."
Speaking to Spectrum, chief electoral commissioner Tin Aye vowed to make the Nov 8 polls as free and fair as possible.
Many are already questioning the Union Election Commission's commitment, but Tin Aye insisted he is doing everything to ensure the lists are accurate and comprehensive.
"We knew there would be many errors," Tin Aye acknowledged. "But now we are trying to validate the initial lists and correct them in time for the election."
The lists are being published and placed outside UEC offices in each township. Voters are being encouraged to check them and notify officials of omissions and discrepancies. The NLD claims electoral rolls nationwide are seriously flawed, with errors making up between 30% and 80% of all lists across the country.
"In Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon, there are so many horrible mistakes," said Tin Oo, deputy leader of the NLD. "We fear they are preparing to use advance votes to win the election like last time [in 2010]."
PROBLEMS: Ms Suu Kyi talks to Union Election Commission chairman Tin Aye when they meet to discuss the upcoming election.
Maung Maung, a retired civil servant registered to vote in northern Yangon, said four out of eight of his family members were listed incorrectly on the roll. His entry included half his brother's name, while his brother's included half of his.
The errors have become a joke across the country, inspiring many cartoons ridiculing the mistakes. But it is the omissions that are beginning to worry politicians and civil society most. In some cases, observers point out, whole streets - at least in Yangon - have been left of the list.
When the NLD met Tin Aye last month to discuss the problems, the electoral commissioner asked Nyan Win to give his name and ID number. He then told his staff to verify the constituency in which he was registered in to vote.
After more than half an hour, Tin Aye had to sheepishly admit they were unable to find his name on the electoral roll.
But Tin Aye assured Spectrum he is taking action to correct voter lists in time for the polls. The law says voters must check lists for their names within seven days, but that limit has been extended to two weeks. Revised electoral rolls will then be published at the end of this month, after which voters will have another two weeks to recheck the rolls.
"We want to avoid the unpleasant scenes at the last election when voters turned up only to find they were not eligible to vote and were turned away," Tin Aye said. "We are committed to compiling as concrete and thorough a voter list as possible.
"The final voter list will be published online, so people won't have to visit the UEC office to recheck their details," he added, despite admitting that measure will not benefit most electors, especially outside the country's main urban centres.
According to civil society leader Kyaw Thu, the director of Paung Ku or Bridge, that's exactly where the most critical problems are.
There is an acute lack of capacity - both technical and personnel - in local UEC branches, he said, citing the fact there are not even enough forms available for voters to correct their entries on the rolls.
Three forms are needed in all. "We have countless examples of having insufficient forms, especially in the more remote townships," he said. "Inevitably the voter lists are going to be seriously flawed."
Another problem is the length of time the UEC is taking to correct the lists. Maw Lin, a prominent architect and writer in central Yangon, found his name missing from the list and tried to correct it. "After a month, and constant inquiries, I was told I'd only find out in August if my correction has been included," he said.
Both civil society activists and political parties allege that voter lists in the 2010 election were more accurate than the present version.
HIGH HOPES: Villagers wait for Aung San Suu Kyi during a voter education campaign in her constituency. Ms Suu Kyi’s National League For Democracy is expected to do well in the election.
"The election may be free, but it won't be fair," said Kyaw Thu. The fact that government officials will be manning local polling stations is also going to make it impossible to avoid the quiet manipulation of voters in the interests of the ruling party, he added, so the need for extensive election monitoring will be vital.
Phil Robertson, the regional head of Human Rights Watch Asia, agreed that oversight is crucial.
"Having a significant presence of impartial electoral observers is going to be absolutely critical to sort out serious problems expected with the voter lists as well as the basic conduct of the polls in a country that has not held a real election in more than 55 years," he said.
JUDGE AND JURY
But for some the independence of the UEC itself is highly dubious. Thant Htut Aung, editor and CEO of Eleven media, believes the electoral commission is unable to be impartial. "As judge and jury on any complaints that arise during the campaign and the polls, their decision is final with no recourse to legal action," he said.
Complaints and protests will be inevitable after the polls, and again after the election results are announced, according to independent analysts. "At no time can Tin Aye act as a bone fide referee," said Ma Thida - a former political prisoner, medical doctor and award-winning journalist.
The electoral commissioner was a senior member of the army and part of the previous military government. He remains extremely proud of his military record, having joined the army at the age of only 17.
During 47 years of service, he was decorated more than a dozen times, rose to become a senior general, and was chairman of the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, a conglomerate owned by the military. He was also a close associate of the former military leader Senior General Than Shwe.
Tin Aye retired six months before the 2010 elections, when he was elected to the lower house of parliament. After only eight months as a member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, he was made head of the UEC by President Thein Sein in February 2012. His appointment was approved by the USDP-dominated parliament.
But he said his background does not compromise his independence: "I want people to judge me on my acts and not look at the past."
Janelle Saffin, a constitutional lawyer, former Australian MP and now a research scholar at the Australian National University in Canberra, warned the UEC is incapable of true independence.
"It has executive, legislative and judicial powers, as well as being an administrative body: an unusual fusion of power - unique and consistent only with authoritarian regimes," she said.
THANKS IN ADVANCE
It is little wonder Myanmar's pro-democracy activists and political parties fear the upcoming polls may just be a carefully crafted charade rather than an opportunity for the people to choose their next government at the ballot box.
"We hope that the 2015 elections will more free and fair than 2010," said Soe Aung, spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, who was involved in unofficial monitoring of the 2010 election. "The only improvement we've seen so far by the authorities is more sophisticated methods of controlling and stacking the process against the opposition."
The worst problem last time around was the use of the "advance vote" to overturn the victory of candidates the regime did not want in parliament, according to Soe Aung. In Mon state and Mandalay, Mon Party and National Democratic Force candidates were winning their respective seats when they went to bed, only to wake up the next day and find they had lost because thousands of advance votes were shipped in overnight.
Tin Aye is well aware of the issue. He told Spectrum that strict measures are being taken to ensure advance votes do not invalidate the election result this November. He even joked that a Chin Party candidate had also complained of losing his seat overnight because of advance votes.
"The UEC can guarantee the advance vote will be fully transparent and the process accountable this time," he said. Past problems were due to legal irregularities that have now been clarified, and the revised law will be enforced to the letter, he added.
Advance votes fall into two categories: those from people living within the constituency, and those from "absentees" outside the constituency and abroad. Applications to vote in advance have to be made early, with votes delivered two days before the national polls.
This year, advance votes will be kept at UEC offices to prevent tampering, then transferred to the relevant constituency before 6am on polling day. Advance votes will be the first counted after polls close at 8pm on Nov 8. "To maintain transparency a list of those who cast an advance vote will be published," Tin Aye said.
For citizens overseas, ballot papers will be sent to Myanmar embassies. Completed votes will be sealed and forwarded to the electoral commission, which will announce how many ballots were sent out and how many returned, he said.
All advance votes will have to be submitted to the township returning officer before 4pm for counting. No votes will be accepted after 8pm. "Previously there was no deadline," Tin Aye said. This lead to accusations of malpractice in 2010, and will not be allowed to happen this year, he added.
EYES OF THE WORLD
Making the polls internationally credible is a top priority for the election commissioner. "From recent history we understand the need for stability, and the military accepts this. No one wants a return to international embargoes and sanctions," he said.
This means the polls must go ahead as planned. "There is no possibility that the election will be postponed or cancelled," he said, although the commission may use its power to halt or delay polls in areas where there is violence and instability. If this is necessary, local government authorities and regional commanders will be responsible for dealing with the issue.
Tin Aye is confident. But many in the democratic opposition and civil society remain sceptical that he will be able to keep his promises. Others believe he is part of the system that Than Shwe put in place to keep power in the hands of the military and the old guard - at least until the 2020 elections.
The country's future hinges on what happens next. "A lot is riding on these elections being free and fair - or at least appearing to be," said Sean Turnell, a Myanmar specialist at Macquarie University in Australia.
"Any hint that it's not will discourage future foreign investment and lead to many international organisations withdrawing their financial and technical support from the government. The international community's continued backing for the reform process depends on a free and fair election in 2015."