On this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, Union Election Commission chairman Tin Aye discusses preparations for the landmark general election to be held later this year, political pressure from his former party to bend the rules in their favor, and efforts to ensure the poll is free, fair and credible. This interview is the first of two parts; the second half of our discussion with Tin Aye is available here.
Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to our weekly Dateline Irrawaddy program. This week, I have invited U Tin Aye, chairman of the Union Election Commission (UEC). He will discuss whether the forthcoming election will be credible and whether or not he will take sides as his former party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), seeks his favor. I am editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition, Kyaw Zwa Moe.
Mr Chairman, looking at the elections after 1988, it’s fair to say that most of them were not trusted. For example, the results of the 1990 election were not recognized. The 2010 election were deemed to be flawed by voting irregularities. But then, the 2012 by-election you organized was given a certain degree of credit from voters at home and abroad, although the number of constituencies was small. What will you do to make sure the forthcoming 2015 election receives the same degree of credit and recognition that the 2012 by-election was given? And what are your challenges as chairman?
Tin Aye: Myanmar has a very limited knowledge and experience of election. There were only four elections—in 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1990—before the 2010 election. The 2010 election is the fifth election and took place 20 years after the fourth one. To judge the previous elections with 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 elections took place in periods of anarchism. In the 1990 election, people cast their votes for a party because they did not like the other. And in the 2010 election, there was essentially only one party. It was backed by the previous government and therefore it has lots of handicaps. To put an example using golf terms, while those people [minor opposition parties] have zero handicap; the ruling party’s handicap was even more than 24—it is 36. But, I was also a member of the ruling party then. I will tell you about this later. You asked me how I as the chairman better organized the 2012 by-election based on past experiences. To answer your question, I reviewed the mistakes—there were both right and wrong things—I will correct the mistakes and keep, doing more to make sure the right things are better and more relevant.
KZM: So, Mr Chairman, do you hope the forthcoming 2015 election will as credible or even more credible than the 2012 by-election?
TA: Sure, it must be. Where the 2012 by-election was different from 2010 election was widespread advanced voting [in 2010]. Some did not know what it was. Some knew it was against the law, but even so they did it to win the election. I have records in my hands about how many individuals from which parties won the election with how many advance votes there were. Some won the election because they got more than 10,000 advance votes. They would not have won if they only got several thousands of advance votes. I have the records in my hands.
KZM: The  election got a bad reputation for advance votes at home and abroad.
TA: Yes, it did.
KZM: How will you prevent such things in 2015?
TA: I have prevented it since the 2012 by-election. Speaking of advance votes, I should really thank my seniors. I would say they are far-sighted because advance voting makes sure 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 vote. The ward-level chapters of 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. They use advance voting.
When we get those advance votes in our hands, we have to make a list of those who cast advance votes. We have a form to record those who cast advance votes. 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 in the wall of the polling station because I fear that there will be voting irregularities taking advantage of advance votes. For example, there are 100 advance votes and the list of how many votes go to who is hung in the wall and therefore there can’t be cheating.
KZM: You said they manipulated advance voting. You mean the Union Solidarity and Development Party manipulated advance voting.
KZM: Mr Chairman, you were elected to the parliament for the USDP. Is the party happy with your actions at this time?
TA: It is a matter for them. Allow me to blow my own trumpet a little bit. If those in power complain me on 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 is supposed to discourage a free and fair election. I will dare to criticize anyone for anything that is against the law. If I did something wrong, I would not be hesitant to apologize and I would not be hesitant to be punished. If I did something wrong, just box my ears. I don’t mind. So they 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. So, I have issued a notice that they would be put behind bars if they accept such advance votes.
KZM: So, this relationship is one of the challenges?
TA: In the past, they might have had some pressure. But now they do not need to fear anything. I have given them books on election law and bylaws and asked them to read them. I will conduct training soon and there I will carefully teach them about the must knows, dos and don’ts. I will tell them they must do what they have to do and if they don’t, they will be imprisoned.
KZM: But then, people remain doubtful that the election will be free and fair. Frankly speaking, you are an ex-army man and you have a military background. And there are errors on voter lists [which have been made public for the coming election]. There are doubts as to whether the election will be held in unstable ethnic regions. Generally speaking, the majority of voters and people doubt that the election will be free and fair. This doubt is considerable. Through this interview, what guarantee would you like to give to dispel their doubts?
TA: I served as a Lt-Gen in the military. I was also a member of Union Solidarity and Development Party. I served as a patron of Union Solidarity and Development Association (former USDP). It was established in 1993 and I was not a member then because I was just a tactical commander with the military at that time. After two years I became a division commander, and I became a patron of USDA when I became a commander in 1997. As a patron, I did not need to engage actively in its activities. Those activities were organized by the central executive committee of the association and we had to help those activities be successful. Then, the association transformed itself into a [political] party. I became a member after August 2010 after the election was announced. I joined the party [on my superiors’ orders] for election as I was due to retire from the military. Then I had to quit from the party [to chair the UEC] in March 2011, so I was in the party for just eight months. Ok, just leave it. People may doubt the credibility of 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 invited civil society organizations, thinking that it would be better if there are witnesses.
CSOs understand election laws as they have given voter education and I asked them to check if or not my proceedings are in line with law. And 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 announcement of the date for voting day. Now, the Carter Center has been here for around one month and a half or two months and made a physical survey. As soon as I announce the election day, the center will send its team of observers who will monitor different areas. Observers will monitor nomination of candidates, their validity, election campaign, what our commissions do, how we count votes, how we will investigate allegations of fraud and how candidates enter the parliament. We have signed a memorandum of understanding with them. I allow them to stay in the country from the day they arrive in the country until the elected candidates sworn in and become parliamentarians. I assure you I will do the best. I know that people don’t believe the election will be free and fair. I will organize the election with witnesses. And if you still don’t believe me, I have no idea. I will do my best. Everyone is keeping an eye on me. How can I cheat?
KZM: Mr Chairman, you know better than me that globally, it can’t be said an election is free and fair just because it is free on election day alone. In our country, we have to take rules and regulations, laws and even the constitution into account. Looking at the constitution, certain provisions do not meet democratic norms. Can the election be fair under such a constitution even if it is free on election day?
TA: You are right if you measure it with true democratic norms. I share your view. I entered a fierce war of words with [the late founder of the National League of Democracy] U Win Tin on publications regarding instructions on the election campaign which I issued in 2014. He said the rules and regulations of electoral campaigning are too restrictive. I denied it, citing specific provisions in existing laws and constitutions. You may think the UEC is too restrictive. So opposition parties are not happy. But then, I did this in line with the law, I would say.
KZM: We will return next week with Dateline Irrawaddy, during which we’ll discuss why U Tin Aye has said the military may stage a coup, how much he is still attached to his old party, the USDP, and his hopes for the party in the forthcoming election.