Burma’s last general election, held in 2010, was largely viewed as fraudulent, an assessment that many blamed on inaccurate and doctored voter lists. As this year’s landmark election draws near, new voter lists are beginning to take shape. The first phase of voter lists in Rangoon was rolled out in late March, when a preliminary list of all eligible voters in 10 townships were made public. Phase two, which will catalog another 14 of the city’s 45 townships, is set to be publicly displayed for two weeks starting on May 25.
Than Htay serves as director of The Serenity Initiative (TSI), a civil society organization formed in 2013 committed to voter education. He and his colleagues recently cooperated with the Union Election Commission (UEC) to carry out similar pilot projects for voter list compilation in Myitkyina, Kachin State, and Tedim, Chin State. Than Htay recently sat down with Irrawaddy’s Wei Yan Aung to discuss his work and progress toward educating Burma’s citizenry about electoral processes.
What is The Serenity Initiative working on now?
Right now we are involved in compiling voter lists. We have also established a resource center in Rangoon for electoral education. We will set up a website which will provide schedules and a list of CSOs that provide voter education and electoral monitoring. The resource center is equipped with literature on elections and it is open to all. Downloadable books are also available. The center is located at Room No. B 2, on the sixth floor of the Sein Gay Har Supermarket building in Hledan. It is open now, and we expect to launch the website by the end of this month.
Did you participate in the first phase of voter lists in Rangoon?
When the voter lists were put on display in 10 townships in Rangoon, we teamed up with other CSOs in nine major townships to provide voter education. We, The Serenity Initiative, worked as a coordinator between authorities and other CSOs. For the time being, we are holding meetings to give voter education in 14 townships where voter lists will be displayed on May 25.
How did voters respond when the lists were put on display?
People weren’t very interested in the voter lists, since this was the first phase and the election is months away. The number of people who viewed the voter list was said to be about 30,000, but in reality it was more than that. A person who comes to see the voter list may also take a look for his family and friends. Suppose a person views the voter list for himself and two other persons, the number is 90,000 if 30,000 viewed the list. This is just my estimate.
Were there any difficulties in displaying voter lists during the first phase?
Political parties did not take an active part, but that isn’t entirely their fault. The UEC did not invite them to participate. It does not allow them to act freely for fear that they might take advantage and canvass support for themselves. And political parties themselves did not urge people in their respective constituencies to take a look at voter lists on display. So now we invite them to take a part. We will be meeting with the Rangoon Election Sub-Commission on May 12 and will discuss the difficulties we faced during the first phase of voter list display. We’ve also written a report and we will submit the report to the commission.
What is your plan for voter education in the next six months leading up to the election?
We will focus on educating the electorate about voting methods and making sure that we, CSOs, do not duplicate voter education programs in the regions and states.
Do you plan to provide voter education for people in Burma’s ethnic minority states and regions?
Recently, on the invitation of the Moulmein Election Sub-Commission and CSO Network, we travelled there [to the Mon State capital] to share voter education knowledge. Voter education programs will be carried out in Moulmein starting in June.
We also plan to provide voter education materials in six major ethic languages. We have yet to decide which languages will be selected. If somebody gives us translated documents, we’ll also share them in black and white printouts and on our website.
What about voter education for people living with disabilities?
One of our five directors takes responsibility for people with disabilities. He himself has a disability. Again, we have office staffers who are trained to help these citizens vote.
What kind of relationship do you have with the UEC?
The UEC fulfills most of our demands. We cooperate with different levels of the election commission as necessary.