Myanmar Govt’s Move to Protect Migrant Voting Rights: Too Little, Too Late?

By The Irrawaddy 8 August 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! As the Union Election Commission (UEC) said it is preparing for Myanmar migrant workers to be able to cast votes in the coming election, we will discuss the situation in Thailand, where the majority of Myanmar migrant workers are working.

U Htoo Chit, director of the Phang Nga-based Foundation for Education Development in Phuket in southern Thailand, and U Aung Kyaw, chairman of the Bangkok-based Myanmar Migrant Workers Rights Network in Thailand, join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

As the UEC has made public the initial voter lists inside the country, it is also working to register the eligible voters outside the country. Myanmar migrant workers have to fill in Form 15 to cast a vote. According to its interviews, the UEC apparently wants to register more Myanmar migrant workers than in the previous elections. We heard that the UEC is coordinating with relevant governments via Myanmar embassies and consulates for documented Myanmar migrant workers to be able to cast votes, particularly in Thailand and Malaysia. Are Myanmar migrant workers in those countries interested in the election? Even if they are interested, do they have easy access to Form 15? Even if they can cast votes, will they come and cast votes at embassies, consulates and labor attaché offices?

Htoo Chit: We have made repeated requests to the government since 2016 to take steps for Myanmar migrant workers to be able to vote. We also presented our recommendations to the UEC in Naypyitaw in March before the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Myanmar. We also said that we would cooperate in the process. We also saw in news reports that the UEC has taken an interest in voting rights of migrant workers.

But the realities regarding the situation in southern Thailand and Myanmar migrant workers in Malaysia are quite different. Like in the previous elections, workers have to fill out Form 15 and send it back to the embassies. What is different is that the government has made an announcement about [Form 15] this time. But still migrant workers are largely constrained and their knowledge is very limited.

First of all, it is difficult for them to get Form 15 by themselves. So we suggested that, if possible, embassies, labor attaches and civil society organizations should distribute Form 15 on a wide scale to migrant workers working in factories and workshops. Our foundation is doing what we can in this regard. We phoned migrant workers nearby, asked them to come to our office and talked to them, gave them forms and kept the [completed] forms. I mean thus far I haven’t seen the Myanmar government working actively and on a wider scale to register Myanmar migrant workers. Those forms are due to be sent back on August 5.

This is just the stage to verify if the voters are eligible. Even if they are eligible, if they have to cast a vote at the embassy in Bangkok or the consulate in Chiang Mai, it is unrealistic. It will be OK only for Myanmar migrant workers who live near Bangkok and Chiang Mai. But it is unrealistic for Myanmar migrant workers in other parts of Thailand to travel to those places and cast votes. We don’t know if it is even possible for Myanmar migrant workers to fill out Form 15. It would be better if the government can extend the deadline for submission of Form 15. Most of the migrant workers do not know that Form 15 has to be sent back by August 5, so the government needs to work systematically if it wants to see a large number of migrant works cast votes in the coming election.

YN: What is your view, Ko Aung Kyaw? There are large numbers of Myanmar migrant workers in Mahachai [Samut Sakhon] near Bangkok where your organization is based. Are they interested in the election? Was Form 15 distributed on a wide scale among Myanmar migrant workers in Mahachai? Do you think Myanmar migrant workers from Mahachai will cast votes at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok?

Aung Kyaw: Unlike in previous elections, the UEC made an announcement about Form 15. It announced on July 3 that Myanmar migrant workers have the right to vote and that they have to fill in Form 15 and send it back [to embassies] between July 16 and August 5. [Migrants] were interested, but they do not have time and it is costly for them to travel to the embassy to obtain the forms. So, in cooperation with nearby civil society organizations [CSOs] and religious organizations, we took out the forms and distributed them as far as we can.

About their interest in the election, many said they wanted to cast votes in the 2015 election but they did not have a chance. But this time, the government has made an announcement and the embassy said it would come and give copies of Form 15 at our request. So many Myanmar migrant workers have become interested in the election. In some wards, migrant workers are helping their colleagues to fill in Form 15, after working hours. Their interest has grown a lot compared to the 2015 election. But many challenges remain.

We ourselves are workers, and we have to work six days a week and only rest on Sunday. So, we only get one day per week to educate the Myanmar migrant workers [about Form 15]. We therefore can’t travel to all the places and educate all the migrant workers. Not as many Form 15s as expected were sent back because the government has done a poor job in educating Myanmar migrant workers. Though Myanmar migrant workers are interested in voting, they don’t even know how to fill in Form 15. As Ko Htoo Chit said, those who are working in Thailand are different from those working in Japan, Australia, South Korea and Singapore who are skilled laborers. Those working in Thailand have received little education and many of them can’t write Burmese. We have come to know this because we have helped them fill out the forms. Some have the will, but have no ability, and therefore gave up as the deadline approached.

The government has to educate on a wide scale if it does not want Myanmar migrants to lose their citizens’ rights. And the deadline must be extended. The deadline from July 16 to August 5 is too strict. To save the time and money of migrant workers, we gathered their forms at our office and forwarded their forms to the embassy. But there were hundreds of forms and we could not check all the forms. The embassy told us that a certain number of forms are incomplete and they need to be filled out again. So, despite the large number of forms submitted to the embassy, not all the forms will be eligible. On the form, they have to fill in their detailed address and I am afraid they don’t know their detailed address. There are many challenges even in filling out Form 15. Even if they can submit the forms and are eligible to vote, there will be obstacles for them to cast an advanced vote at the embassy. I have made suggestions in my interviews with media agencies and also presented my recommendation to the embassy that polling stations be opened through negotiations between the two governments in Mahachai, where some 400,000 Myanmar migrant workers are working. This will help the Myanmar government to prevent Myanmar citizens from losing their rights.

YN: It is fair to say that the government has worked for the first time for the voting rights of Myanmar migrant workers. The UEC and the government acknowledge that there are challenges, and apparently they are working to find solutions. The Myanmar government said it is working with Thai authorities for Myanmar migrant workers to be able to cast votes in places like Mahachai, Mae Sot and Ranong. Even if the Thai government allows polling stations in those places, there may be Myanmar migrant workers who do not know about parties and how to cast votes. Can’t these be challenges? How are labor rights organizations like yours and the embassy working together to address those challenges?

HC: We have repeatedly presented our recommendations whenever we meet relevant government officials, especially election officials. Since 2016, we have provided recommendations as to how to protect migrant workers and how to ensure their voting rights, which are their fundamental rights. As Ko Aung Kyaw has said, we are a non-governmental organization (NGO) and we have constraints. We have limited human resource and are also constrained in engaging with government departments. The president said that when a person is disenfranchised it means his fundamental human rights are violated. The UEC is working for Myanmar migrant workers to be enfranchised. But in reality, there are hundreds of thousands of Myanmar migrant workers working under the Memorandum of Understanding between two governments.

Both the government and overseas employment agencies know at which factories in which areas they are working. So the labor attaché of the embassy can go to the factories in collaboration with employers. There are some COVID-19 regulations imposed by the Thai government. We can follow those dos and don’ts. Schools have reopened in some areas and we have accepted over 200 upper secondary students as we were able to meet the guidelines of Thai authorities. We have been able to hold meetings with workers. Recently, representatives of the Mon Party came and talked with Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand. We should be able to run voter education in collaboration with the government.

But then, time is very limited and the government also needs to run voter education on social media. Some migrant workers do not even know how many parties there are in Myanmar. Most of the migrant workers we have met are first-time voters, usually aged between 18 and 24. And there are also older migrant workers who have never cast a vote. Ninety percent of the migrant workers we have met have never cast a vote. They want to cast a vote and there is a need to run basic voter education for them. There are migrant workers who think there are only two parties. They think they have to choose only between the USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party] and the NLD [National League for Democracy]. They don’t know how many candidates they have to vote for, for example, ethnic people who live outside their state have to choose an ethnic affairs minister to represent them [for instance, Karen ethnic affairs in the Yangon regional government]. Though the time is limited, we can get this done through cooperation between the government and CSOs. Particularly, government staff personnel need to work carefully.

We can say that more migrant workers will cast votes in the coming election compared to in previous elections. Whether they will be able to cast votes will largely depend on the government and the UEC. We have repeatedly told them that we are ready to help them and cooperate with them. It is up to them to cooperate with us. Some embassy staff told us that they would send copies of Form 15 to us. But they did not send them until July 30. So, we had to photocopy Form 15 ourselves. We can fill in and submit the forms on the behalf of Myanmar migrant workers. But the copies of a citizenship ID card or passport must be attached to the form. How can they photocopy them? So, we are thinking of going mobile by bringing a printer in the car. We can submit the forms for them, but it is difficult to get the photocopies of their IDs. There are many workers who work in rubber and oil palm plantations in remote areas, which are far from photocopier shops. These challenges will remain. What we are doing on our part is not yet effective. Perhaps the embassy is distributing the forms near Bangkok.

What is more important is that ethnic people account for a large proportion of migrant workers. Previously, ethnic opposition parties like Rakhine, Mon, Karen and Kayah and Chin ethnic parties worked together with us to run voter education. But due to COVID-19, they can’t come to Thailand. What was lucky is that as there are Mon CSOs based here, and they came and explained about the Mon Party. So, I think more migrant workers will cast votes in the coming election.

YN: Ko Aung Kyaw, what is your view?

AK: The UEC officially announced on July 3 [about registration of migrant workers]. Starting from that day, we took out Form-15 and educated migrant workers nearby. We have been doing what we can as a NGO. But there are millions of Myanmar workers in Thailand and we can educate only a few of them.

We welcomed the government’s move [to register Myanmar voters aboard], but it should have cooperated with us and worked intensively since July 3 on voter education. The Myanmar Embassy in Thailand and the Myanmar government should have worked on a wide scale. I am not blaming them for not reaching Myanmar workers in Thailand. There are over 70 provinces in Thailand and it is difficult for them to travel to each province to meet Myanmar migrant workers. What’s more, there are travel restrictions due to COVID-19. But they can run voter education campaigns through media to attract the interest of Myanmar migrant workers and explain to them how to fill out Form 15. What CSOs and NGOs are doing will not be as effective as government activities. I believe the government is working in good faith to ensure suffrage for Myanmar migrant workers, but its performance fell short of our expectations. The UEC made the announcement on July 3, but the Myanmar Embassy only took steps around July 20 to distribute forms and run voter education.

The deadline for submission of Form 15 is August 5. As I have said earlier, we can only meet directly with migrant workers one day per week, on Sunday. We had no time. As a result, they will lose their fundamental rights. Not everyone who has submitted Form 15 will be allowed to cast a vote. Inside Myanmar, there are also errors in voter lists. Migrant workers still can’t check if they are on the voter list. Even if they are eligible to vote, they don’t know the policies of parties. If we and the government can’t even work together regarding the distribution and submission of Form 15, it is much more difficult to collaborate on voter education, which is a more complicated issue.

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