DALA TOWNSHIP, Rangoon Division — “I did cast my ballot in the last election, so this time I will do the same … ticking the name of the person I like,” Daw Mar, a 48-year-old Dala resident, said during a visit by The Irrawaddy to the rural township just a ferry’s ride south of the bustling commercial capital Rangoon.
But like countless others, Daw Mar never went in person to check her name on the lists of eligible voters made public earlier this year, busy as she was with the daily grind of earning a living as a flower seller. She is fortunate, she said, to have relatives who were willing to check on her behalf.
“My family did it as I have always been at the market when the candidates have come to my house,” she told The Irrawaddy.
In Dala, just a five-minute trip by boat from downtown Rangoon, Daw Mar is one of the many ordinary households’ breadwinners who have not had time to meet with the candidates and lack even basic knowledge on how to cast a vote on Nov. 8. Like most of more than a dozen voters The Irrawaddy spoke with on Wednesday, Daw Mar was unaware that there will not be any “ticking” of boxes on election day, with a change from the 2010 poll meaning validly marked ballots will require use of a rubber stamp dipped in ink.
Dala Township has largely stood as a testament to the importance of road links for development. With no bridge connecting it with downtown Rangoon, the fastest way to get to the city is by boat, and residents have thus experienced a far less robust development trajectory over the decades, made all the more apparent as an influx of foreign investment in recent years has begun to transform Rangoon proper.
While all that could begin to change by the time Burma holds its next election—if plans to build a bridge spanning the Rangoon River by 2020 come to fruition—for now this constituency straddles a rural-urban divide like few others in Burma.
Unique Circumstances, Similar Problems
Although the particular concerns of constituents here may not be reflective of most others in cities or the countryside, many of the pre-poll problems brought to light in the months leading up to the vote are shared.
Amid complaints of many errors in Burma’s eligible voter register, the problem is unlikely to have been resolved come Nov. 8, if the voters in Dala can be considered a representative slice of the national electorate in this regard. While many of those who spoke to The Irrawaddy here expressed enthusiasm at participating in the vote, most also admitted to a common failure to verify the eligible voter lists’ accuracy.
Dala is home to more than 170,000 people, including a significant internal migrant community, the 2014 census found. According to the Dala chapter of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the number of eligible voters in the latest list stands at more than 105,000, after about 1,000 people were added to it during a registration and verification process that began in late March.
With just 17 days before the much-anticipated poll, the extent to which voter lists nationwide have been rectified remains unclear. The controversy first arose as successive batches of preliminary eligible voter lists were made public in Rangoon and later nationwide, revealing errors that ranged from the exclusion of names on the rosters to the presence of deceased residents’ names on some of the same lists.
Sein Mya Aye, the NLD’s Lower House candidate for Dala Township, said a couple of thousand additional voters may be included in a final voter list due out one week before the election, if some migrants living in the constituency for more than 180 days were successful in their appeals for inclusion.
Local NLD members have been helping would-be voters to apply for registration over the past three weeks. In terms of engaging in activities to raise voter awareness, the NLD has been the most active party, not just in Dala but nationwide, with those efforts in tandem with civil society groups.
But Thant Sin Aung, a voter education activist who is director of the Forward Institute, told The Irrawaddy that current voter awareness campaigns covered only about 10 percent of the country.
“There needs to be more electoral awareness for the voters, especially in the rural areas, where the majority of voters reside,” he said.
Nationwide, there are more than a dozen civil society groups undertaking efforts to educate voters, according to Thant Sin Aung, but many only cover urban constituencies, leaving out rural voters who make up most of the country’s population.
In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy, Union Election Commission (UEC) official Thaung Hlaing said it was up to the public to raise the issue with the relevant district election subcommission if errors exist, whether wrongful omissions, inclusions or spellings. Voters would have up until one week before election day to do so, he added.
Less than three weeks ahead of the November poll, electioneering by thousands of candidates from 92 contesting political parties is heating up throughout much of the country.
Among the parties, Burma’s two largest—the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition NLD—have garnered most media coverage in a battle to control Parliament that is viewed in many constituencies as a two-horse race.
On the campaign trail, NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi has consistently highlighted the importance of voters examining the lists, filing for corrections if necessary and reporting to the party if complaints go unaddressed.
Tun Yin, the secretary of the NLD’s Dala chapter and the regional candidate for one of the township’s two regional legislature seats, told The Irrawaddy the party has put particular emphasis on voter list verification and an election awareness campaign because it views potential disenfranchisement due to voter list inaccuracies as one of the biggest threats to its electoral prospects.
Many of the voters who agreed to speak to The Irrawaddy had settled firmly on whom they would vote for on Nov. 8, while others spoke more reservedly of favoring the party that would improve education and living conditions for their families.
One of the more visible manifestations of the looming election has been campaigns by the NLD and USDP to post their respective party banners on trishaws and motorbikes, a battle in branding that the opposition party is clearly winning.
Asked if he was ferrying fewer customers since he became a member of the minority to affix the USDP flag on their trishaws, one driver said it’s been business as usual.
Those few trishaw drivers displaying the green and red of the USDP told The Irrawaddy that they believed in the current president’s efforts to implement political and economic changes.
Moe Ko Oo, a 22-year-old migrant from Paungde, Bago Division, who has lived in Dala for three years, said November will be the second opportunity he has had to voice his support for the ruling party at the ballot box.
“I will vote for the USDP, as I have always been a supporter of the USDP,” he said.
“But I don’t know yet who the candidates for my constituency [in Paungde] are,” added Moe Ko Oo, sporting a USDP T-shirt to complement the small party flag tied to a pole on his trishaw’s metal frame.
Another trishaw driver, a 35-year-old Dala resident who refused to give his name, said: “I believe the President [Thein Sein] is the agent of change, as he works for stability and peace in the country.” The man cited the signing last week of a so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement as proof positive of the president’s bona fides.
For the flower vendor Daw Mar, an NLD supporter, the enthusiasm is evident as she explains her party loyalty.
“I support the peacock party” she said, referring to the bird long-associated with the NLD, “because it is led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of our hero General Aung San.”
Despite her excitement at the prospect of voting in what is expected to be the freest and fairest election in 25 years, the preceding era of dictatorship—spanning nearly twice that length of time—has clearly taken a toll not only on the country’s development, but on the political mindsets of many of its people: Asked whether she had any expectations if the NLD should take power when a new government is formed next year, Daw Mar’s response was telling.
“I do not expect anything from the new government either, as no government has ever bettered our daily lives,” she said, adding: “And we, alone, cannot demand anything.”