On the eve of Burma’s historic general election, The Irrawaddy reposts a condensed interview with the chairman of the country’s electoral body, Tin Aye, to remind readers of his pledges to ensure a free and fair election when more than 33 million Burmese voters go to the polls on Sunday. The Irrawaddy’s English-language editor Kyaw Zwa Moe spoke to the Union Election Commission head in June of this year.
Mr. Chairman, it is fair to say that two of three elections since 1988 were not a success. The results of the 1990 vote were not recognized. The 2010 election was deemed flawed. But the 2012 by-election, which you organized, was given a certain degree of credit. What will you do to make sure the 2015 election receives the same kind of recognition?
Myanmar has very limited knowledge and experience of elections. There had been only four [full, multiparty] elections—in 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1990—before the 2010 election.
Judging the previous elections against my personal norms for an ideal election, they are not ones that elected outstanding and morally good people to represent the people.
The first three polls took place during periods of anarchy. In the 1990 election, people cast their votes for a party because they did not like the other option. In the 2010 election, there was essentially only one party, which was backed by the previous government and therefore had lots of handicaps.
You asked me how I, as the chairman, better organized the 2012 by-election. To answer your question, I reviewed the mistakes—there were both right and wrong things. I will continue to correct the mistakes and keep doing more to ensure the right things are better and more relevant.
Do you hope the forthcoming election will be as credible or even more so than the 2012 by-election?
Sure, it must be. Where the 2012 by-election was different from the 2010 election was in the matter of widespread advance voting [in 2010]. I have records in my hands about how many individuals from which parties won the election with how many advance votes.
How will you prevent such things in 2015?
I have prevented them since the 2012 by-election. Speaking of advance votes, I should really thank my seniors. They were far-sighted, because advance voting ensures that voters do not lose their rights.
There are two kinds of advance votes. One is for constituents in a constituency. It can be given by those who will be traveling on voting day and the elderly and ill persons who cannot go to polling stations to cast votes. The ward-level chapters of the UEC go to their places, even if they are behind bars or in hospitals, and take their ballots in envelopes. This is how advance votes are cast in constituencies.
When we get those advance votes in our hands, we have to make a list of those who cast the votes. We have a form to record them. Then we have to hand over the boxes of advance ballots before 6 am, when polling stations are opened. Advance votes that are handed in after 6 am are invalid. I have instructed that when the polling stations are closed in the evening, the advance votes must be counted first and the list must be hung on the wall of the polling station, because I fear that there will be voting irregularities to do with taking advantage of advance votes. For example, if there are 100 advance votes and the list of which votes have gone to whom is hung on the wall, there can’t be cheating.
You mean the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP] manipulated advance voting previously.
Mr. Chairman, you were elected to Parliament for the USDP. Is the party happy with your performance at this time?
It is a matter for them. Allow me to blow my own trumpet a little bit. If those in power complain to me about such cases [regarding advance voting], I will call them and discuss it in line with the truth and the law. I won’t make any compromises with anyone over anything that could discourage a free and fair election. I will dare to criticize anyone for anything that is against the law. If I do something wrong, I will not hesitate to apologize and I will not hesitate to be punished. If I do something wrong, just box my ears. I don’t mind. So they [the USDP] don’t like me. They do want me to favor them.
They don’t like me as I’m not biased. You would ask me what I would do if somebody in power put pressure on returning officers. I have issued an instruction. I have told them that advance votes that arrive at polling stations later than 6 am are invalid and I would imprison them if they accept the advance votes that arrive after 6 am.
I will conduct training soon and there I will carefully teach them about the must-knows, dos and don’ts. I will tell them what they must do, what they have to do, and if they don’t, they will be imprisoned.
But people still remain doubtful that the election will be free and fair. Frankly speaking, you are an ex-army man. And there are errors on voter lists. There are doubts as to whether the election will be held in unstable ethnic regions. What guarantee would you like to give to dispel people’s doubts?
People may doubt the credibility of the coming election because I am an ex-army man. I don’t want to say they should or should not doubt me. The winner will say the election is fair and the loser will say it is not. So, taking this into consideration, I have invited civil society organizations, thinking that it will be better if there are witnesses.
CSOs understand election laws as they have given voter education. I have asked them to check whether or not my proceedings are in line with the law. I also invited international observers. There are two types of observers. Short-term observers come three or four days before voting day and go back two or three days after voting day. Long-term observers come on the announcement of the date for voting day.
The Carter Center has been here […] and done a survey. It will send its team of observers who will monitor different areas. They will monitor the nomination of candidates, their validity, the election campaign, what our commissions do, how we count votes, how we will investigate allegations of fraud and how candidates enter the Parliament.
I am allowing them to stay in the country from the day they arrive in the country until the elected candidates are sworn in and become parliamentarians. I assure you I will do my best. Everyone is keeping an eye on me. How can I cheat?
Mr. Chairman, last year, you said that the military may seize power if there was instability in the country. Perhaps you said it because you were worried. But some viewed it as a threat. As UEC chairman, don’t you think such words could damage the credibility of the institution?
I don’t blame those who criticize me. I did not mean to threaten; I said so because I do not wish it to happen.
I joined the military in 1963 and passed the time under the socialism of the Revolutionary Council, and then the State Law and Order Restoration Council and State Peace and Development Council, and the country has lagged behind in development.
You know that previously Bangladesh, Laos and Cambodia lagged behind us. But now they are developed. How have they become developed? With the help of grants, aid and loans.
I am full of bitter experiences in my mind and in my heart. This makes me afraid that the military might need to seize power again. The military intervenes when there is disorder and instability.
The military never seizes power when the country is peaceful. You may point out the 1962 coup. That was because of the weakness of the 1947 constitution. The military seized power, giving the excuse that [ethnic regions] could secede from the country [according to the constitution]. History will decide whether their reasons were right or wrong.
I did not mean to threaten. We were blamed for the 1988 coup. There was no rule of law then, there were cases of beheadings, the administrative mechanisms had fallen apart, and there were fights at border posts and the US naval fleets [entered Myanmar’s territorial waters]. Under such circumstances, what would have happened had the military not seized power and just stood by?
Think about it. It was not that the military seized power because it wanted to, but because it was inevitable. But then, as a result, the country suffered.
We see now that the military, government and election commission are working in harmony. I think the military must have given a guarantee about this election.
As the military has provided a guarantee, so has the government, I think. This is my personal view. I don’t know if they are craftily playing tricks. But I believe we are in the same boat. If they do so, there will be a big impact. The country will be in trouble. I dare to persuade them and I would urge them [to not stage a coup] and to listen to my decision. What I want is—today, the Union Solidarity and Development Party is the ruling party, and it must be the best opposition party if it loses the election.
Critics would point to the 1990 election [the results of which were nullified]…
No. No. I want to deny that comparison. The national convention was convened for 1992, 1993. The National League for Democracy [NLD] should have acted shrewdly and attended the convention and gone along with the Constitution, no matter what was written in it. In fact, the Constitution was a step for the transfer of power.
If the government at the time said the election would be held only after the Constitution was drafted, so it should have been. The NLD could have contested again. No other party would have been able to win that election. If they said they would change the Constitution again after it won that election, no one would have been able to stop it. It was not clever.
What legal action will the UEC take regarding unlawful campaigning or encouraging people to vote for a particular party? Recently, some religious organizations spoke indirectly of doing so.
That case is very delicate. I don’t want to talk about it. It is a complicated issue. I asked them not to do it. I will take action if anything is against the law. But it is best if they don’t do it.
I hear that you will retire when your current term expires. What legacy would you like to leave for the commission?
I will quit when my term expires after the election. … As to your question of a legacy, I want to talk about the essence of elections. Elections are crucially important. They need to turn out outstanding and virtuous people. Secondly, political parties are very important. They have to constantly improve their capacity. They have to serve the country when they come into power. The opposition party should not disturb but cooperate. I want to instill these concepts. And I want my commission to be a strong, firm institution.
Are you ready to take any bigger role after you retire?
I won’t unless the situation requires it. Bogyoke Aung San said that he would stand by and laugh at his comrades’ arguments, after the country gained its independence. I will copy Bogyoke Aung San’s words because I like them. I will not laugh, but I will stand by and watch. Unless the situation requires it, I will not take any role.
You were a member of the USDP. Do you wish the USDP to win in the election?
As a chairman, I am not supposed to have attachment to a party. It would not be wise. I do have an attachment, but I don’t put it at the forefront of my mind.
Anyway, attachment is the origin of a patriotic spirit. If you say you don’t love your organization, I would say you don’t have patriotic spirit. I am speaking the truth. I love the country. I love my organization. I love the military. I am willing to sacrifice my life for them.
I love my organization. But I don’t accept wrongdoing. I want the USDP to win, but to win fairly, not by cheating. They are my friends and colleagues who I have known for 20 or 30 years. I am willing to help them any time on personal matters. But if they ask me to help them to win the election, I will say ‘sorry.’