How Will Millions of Myanmar Migrant Workers Vote in the 2020 Election?

By The Irrawaddy 25 January 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week we will discuss the 2020 general election and the enfranchisement of migrant workers. Ko Htoo Chit, executive director of the Foundation for Education and Development, an organization helping Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand, and Ko Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, executive director of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

Ko Htoo Chit, as you have submitted papers to the government on the enfranchisement of migrant workers, could you explain what the Union Election Commission [UEC] has been doing for their voting rights?

Htoo Chit: Our organization is based in Thailand. Migrant workers in Thailand barely had voting rights in [Myanmar’s] 2015 general elections. Only a few hundred were able to vote. In fact, there are over 2 million documented Myanmar workers in Thailand, between the ages of 18 and 55, who are eligible voters. We estimate that there are over 1 million undocumented Myanmar workers. So in Thailand alone, there are about 3 million eligible voters. When the new government took office in 2016, we provided suggestions about what preparations the government should make to enable migrant workers to easily and smoothly cast their votes, which is their right as citizens. So far, we have not yet been informed about how [the government] has been preparing. If I remember correctly, the UEC [officials] said in an interview with VOA [Voice of America] that the commission will take measures for migrant workers, internally displaced persons and the disabled to ensure they are more enfranchised in the 2020 general election. But so far, we have not been informed about what measures they have taken.

YN: Ko Sai, as your organization monitors elections and provides input to the UEC, what did the commission do in 2015 to enable migrant workers to cast votes? And do you think the UEC is setting up a better system for the 2020 poll?

Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint: Under the existing electoral framework, there are no particular instructions or procedures about enfranchisement of migrant workers. But for Myanmar nationals living abroad, we refer to it as “advance voting outside the constituency” or “advance voting in foreign countries,” and there are procedures.

After the Election Commission announces the date for the election and when it is time [for advance voting], those living in foreign countries, if they want to cast a vote, will submit applications at the relevant Myanmar embassies. The embassies will send the application forms to the election commissions of the relevant townships where those voters are registered. This means people can only cast a vote in places where there is a Myanmar embassy and cannot cast a vote in places where there is no Myanmar embassy.

According to census data, there are more than 4 million [documented] Myanmar nationals living abroad. Most of them are in Thailand and Malaysia, which account for 3 million. According to the UEC, over 30,000 migrant workers submitted application forms to cast votes in the 2015 poll, and just over 20,000 migrant workers actually cast votes. Most of the voters were in Singapore. Nearly 19,000 Myanmar nationals in Singapore cast votes in 2015. In Thailand, the combined number of voters in Bangkok and Chiang Mai was barely 600.

The Philippines and Indonesia both have many citizens working abroad. In the case of Indonesia, [the country’s election authority] even formed a commission to register voters outside the country so that it can better manage voters inside the country and abroad. In the case of Myanmar, for the time being, there is no specific provision for how to ensure that Myanmar citizens outside the country can cast votes. So far, I have heard the commission only working on internal migrants and internally displaced persons. I haven’t seen the commission doing anything for Myanmar citizens outside the country.

YN: The UEC recently issued a new residency requirement regarding internal migrants [which allows people to vote in a constituency if they have resided there for 90 days, rather than the previous residency requirement of six months]. Ethnic parties have responded with criticisms [over concerns that migrants could influence the vote in ethnic areas even if they are only living there temporarily]. Ko Htoo Chit, what is your view on it?

HC: We welcome any act that contributes to easy and smooth voting for citizens living inside and outside the country. Internal migrants should only be allowed to cast votes for candidates in constituencies from where they come from, rather than cast votes for candidates in constituencies where they are temporarily living. The government can arrange for them to cast advance votes in that case [if they are living somewhere temporarily]. I feel like the government is treating ethnic parties unfairly. In Karenni State, which is called Kayah State by the government, the ethnic Bamar population is the highest compared to local ethnic people. It is unacceptable that people who have only lived there for three months can elect the parliamentarians to local parliament and Upper and Lower Houses for that state. We are concerned that there will be conflicts between migrants and locals, which can result in violence. So, I want the government to think fairly, like a gentleman.

YN: The residency requirement was reduced to 90 days from the previous six months. This allows people to cast their votes in places to which they have recently moved from their original places of residence. This led to criticisms from ethnic parties. Ko Sai, what is your view on this?

SYKSM: We called it the 180-day by-law in the 2015 poll. Regarding its background, five new townships were established in Naypyitaw back in 2010.  Most of the government staff had moved from Yangon to Naypyitaw. But on their household registration certificates, they were registered in Yangon. Generally, only the government staff themselves moved to Naypyitaw and their families are left in Yangon. So, five new townships were established but there were virtually no voters there. Due to the political circumstances of that time, something needed to be done to address that. So, a provision was created to allow people who have lived in a place for at least 180 days to cast their votes there. It was not a problem at the time.

But, the political situation has become more complicated over time, from the 2015 election to the 2017 by-election. So, I want the government to consider this more carefully. No matter how good the election law is, if the participating political parties do not accept it, then that law should be carefully reviewed. This is an important norm for elections. No matter how good the election law is, the most important thing is that participating parties should agree on it. This is fundamentally important.

After the 2018 by-election, we suggested repealing the 180-day residency requirement. It no longer fits the current political situation. A better system should be introduced. Things are different now compared to 10 years ago. The political landscape has changed a lot. Our suggestion is to repeal the 180-day residency requirement and allow advance voting. There is no problem with allowing people to cast their votes in a new place, on the condition that they move to the new places with their entire families. But individuals who will only stay temporarily in a place should not be allowed to cast their votes in local elections. It is difficult for the UCE to manage such voters. Unless a voter officially registers a new place as his permanent residence, he should only be allowed to cast his vote in the place where he is originally registered. At least the township-level election committees can take care of this one month before the election. Doing this could dispel doubts about the electoral process and prevent instability.

YN: What else do you want to point out, Ko Htoo Chit?

HC: The government said migrant workers can cast votes at Myanmar embassies. But millions of migrant workers do not live near embassies. The [Myanmar] government and [foreign] employers must take care of this. Most of the Myanmar migrant workers go and work overseas under bilateral memoranda of understanding [MOUs] between two governments. The [Myanmar government] can add a line to the MOU asking employers to give a half-day holiday on election day [for their employees who are Myanmar nationals]. There are legal experts here. The government can discuss it with them.

Only around 600 out of millions of eligible voters [in Thailand] could cast their votes in the 2015 election. I don’t want to see a similar situation. The [Myanmar government] can’t just say Myanmar migrant workers have the right and they can cast ballots at Myanmar embassies. I don’t want the ruling party only thinking about their electoral victory. It appears that some political parties think that they can still win even without the votes of some 5 million migrant workers. And it is fair to say most of the migrant workers are ethnic people. So, people would ask if [the government] is deliberately doing this to prevent ethnic parties from winning the election. Again, township-level election committees can use many solutions, such as advance voting for internal migrants so that they can vote for candidates in constituencies where they permanently reside, and not for candidates in constituencies where they temporarily reside.

The previous UEC submitted an election report to the government regarding migrant workers after the 2015 poll. The report said it is difficult for embassies to manage migrant voters and called for a review [of policies]. The report also suggested introducing voting by mail instead of requiring voters to vote at embassies. Four million people is not a small number, and all of them have the right to cast a vote. And their annual remittance is around 2.7 billion [kyats, or US$1.8 million], accounting for 4 percent of Myanmar’s GDP. While they are important for the country’s economy, they are losing their right to vote. This is an important issue for our country. In some countries, we know where the Myanmar migrant workers are concentrated. For example Penang or Kuala Lumpur [in Malaysia] or Chiang Mai [in Thailand]. In such places, [Myanmar and the host governments] can make agreements for temporary voting stations that can be opened there on election day for Myanmar migrant workers. This practice is also used in other countries. For example, in France, there are a lot of African migrant workers. So, in cities with large populations of African migrant workers, despite the fact that there are no embassies there representing the African countries, the French government allows polling stations for African migrant workers. We can arrange for similar things.

What we always measure in elections is inclusiveness—how many citizens can participate in the election. Now, only around 30,000 of 4 million [Myanmar nationals abroad] cast votes, so millions of people are losing their right to vote. They are disenfranchised because of [problems with] procedures. It is an important issue to consider, if we are going to improve the quality of our elections. Special attention should be given to this, I think. Migrant workers not only provide income for the country, but also contribute to the development of the country with their experience and technical skills. In Thailand, just over 600 out of 2 million Myanmar people there cast votes in the 2015 election. From what we saw, most of those 600 people are embassy staff and Myanmar students learning in Thai universities. Migrant workers barely cast any votes. I have no knowledge of this, but the government, in consultation with experts, can find ways to effectively enfranchise migrant workers. At the same time, the government should review its new residency requirement for voting, as this could even harm national unity.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!