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VOTING

Voice for the Disabled: ‘We Have the Right to Help Choose a Government’

Nay Lin Soe discusses challenges facing voters with physical impairments, and how best to ensure that these citizens too have a say on election day.


The Myanmar Center for Inclusive Development (MCID) is a local civil society organization providing training, information, resources and services in support of equal rights for those in Burma who live with disabilities.

According to Burma’s 2014 census, there are 2.3 million people with disabilities nationwide, a population that was disproportionately disenfranchised in the country’s 2010 general election due largely to a lack of attention to the unique needs of these voters.

With the Nov. 8 poll approaching, Nay Lin Soe, the director of MCID, recently organized a training promoting inclusivity for people with disabilities for organizations engaged in the electoral process. He sat down with The Irrawaddy to talk about challenges facing voters with physical impairments, and how best to ensure that these voices too have a say on election day.

Can you tell me about the training you recently organized?

Organizations currently engaging in the electoral process barely pay attention to the voting [rights] of disabled people. So, we wanted to highlight this issue through the training. More than 30 representatives of political parties and CSOs [civil society organizations] attended the training and over half of them were from political parties.

Political parties can make disabled people one of their target groups. There are over 2.3 million disabled people in Burma and we estimate that two-thirds of them are over 18. So, political parties can make use of their votes. They can mobilize their support by giving them incentives and including them in their party policies. This is mutually beneficial to us.

What are the major difficulties facing disabled people who want to vote?

The first is that they don’t have national IDs. Their families tend to think that disabled people do not travel and therefore do not need national IDs. So, they don’t apply for national IDs for them and some disabled people therefore do not have national IDs.

They have difficulty in checking voter lists. In the case of the deaf, they have never been informed about where and how to cast a vote. We need to enable people with visual impairments to vote all by themselves. If someone else is going to be asked to vote on their behalf, he [the person assisting the blind voter] might vote for the person he favors instead. There are suggestions that disabled people should cast advanced votes, but we don’t want to; we want to cast a vote on polling day.

We have learned that there have been positive developments regarding the rights of disabled people in the policies and laws of the Union Election Commission [UEC]. How are those policies being implemented on the ground?

The election by-law provides lots of rights for disabled people. There is about a page of provisions for disabled people in the manual for polling station officers. But on the ground, the UEC has financial constraints and limited human capital.

Tell us about the UEC’s plan to set up model polling stations for voters with disabilities.

One of our projects is compiling a list of disabled voters. The UEC says it will build [special] polling stations where there are 30 or more disabled voters, and design those polling stations for their convenience. The UEC says it will build at least five such polling stations for the disabled, but it will not be able to build such polling stations across the country.

What is the model polling station like?

Some think it is different from an ordinary polling station. In fact, it is an ordinary polling station with some additional things for us; for example, a larger entrance so that wheelchairs can get in.

What measures have been taken together with the UEC to enable the blind to vote?

We’ve proposed to use a Braille template, which is to be put on the ballot papers so that blind voters can read it. The template can be removed after casting the ballot. After you put the ballot into the ballot box, no one knows whether or not it was cast by a blind person. This method is used in many countries. The UEC has agreed to this plan and said it will fund it.

Are disabled people interested in the election? What are the challenges to ensuring their participation?

Some are afraid to cast a vote because they think casting a vote is engaging in politics. There are about 10 organizations actively engaging on the issues affecting disabled people in Burma, but only around two of them are engaged in the voting process for the disabled. Such organizations themselves are weak in cooperation and networking. These are the challenges.

For disabled people, how will this election be different from previous ones?

Previously, it was quite rare that disabled people cast votes. Even their families did not inform them about the polling. But they are fairly aware of the election now. Disabled people will be able to take part more in the coming election, compared with previous elections. But on a national scale, their participation will still be quite low.

Why do you think it is important that disabled people be able to vote on Nov. 8?

To put it simply, we are humans and citizens, and therefore we must be afforded the rights that other citizens enjoy. These are birth rights. We should get this right automatically, without any effort. But we still do not fully enjoy that right. So, we need to work for it.

We are not a burden on Burmese society. We know that we are responsible to do our fair share for the development of our society and country, and we believe we are able to do so. Therefore, we should necessarily participate in the election. We should have the full right to help choose a government that will shape the future of our country.

Translated by Thet Ko Ko.