RANGOON — Burma’s government is reportedly mulling plans to extend the Oct. 23 deadline for advance voting overseas following a raft of complaints from Burmese nationals abroad.
Advance voting for overseas nationals began on Oct. 13, with over 34,000 Burmese registered to cast ballots, according to the country’s Union Election Commission (UEC)—a small portion of the 4 to 5 million people believed to reside abroad.
Overseas voters have reported multiple difficulties since advance polls opened at embassies turned polling stations around the world, including unlisted names or incomplete details on voter lists, missing ballot papers, poor quality envelopes and long wait times.
With each embassy responsible for setting its own schedule for voters to cast ballots before the original deadline, voting has taken place in Singapore, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere.
However, state media reported on Wednesday that the foreign ministry and the UEC were planning to extend the Oct. 23 deadline due to mounting complaints from nationals who had been denied the right to vote due to bureaucratic errors.
According to the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar, the highest number of complaints were received from voters at embassies in Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul.
In Singapore, around 20,000 Burmese are registered to vote, with many forced to queue overnight as the large numbers overwhelmed embassy staff.
After local police warned against people sleeping on the street, the embassy distributed tokens on Saturday in an effort to cap the number of daily voters.
Swan Htet Ko, 24, who works for a shipping and transportation firm in Singapore, said he received a token on Saturday allowing him to vote on Monday.
“I cast my vote in the afternoon but I was queuing up since 8 am. There were lots of people earlier than me. The line was moving slowly,” he said, adding that he knew of at least two voters who did not receive the requisite ballot papers.
The Burmese Embassy in Singapore had originally arranged to allow four days for advance votes, but this was extended to seven days due to the high turn-out.
Swan Htet Ko, an ethnic Karen, also complained that the quality of envelopes in which to place ballot papers was “very low” and rated the management of the embassy as only a “one out of five.”
Wunna Saw Thein, a volunteer with a local support group that backs Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), said the group had been providing unofficial assistance, including offering information to Burmese nationals on voting procedures.
The 42-year-old engineer by trade, who has lived in Singapore for 15 years, said some voters did not receive the required number of ballot papers or received ballots for the wrong constituency.
The embassy in Singapore released a statement on Monday saying that it was working with the UEC to obtain ballots for those who did not receive the full or accurate allotment.
Burmese voters in other cities abroad have faced similar difficulties casting advance ballots for the Nov. 8 poll.
Win Nyein Kyaw, a 28-year-old working in Busan, South Korea, said he travelled to the capital Seoul with a group of over 50 others to cast a vote. Of that group, two persons were unable to cast ballots but Win Nyein Kyaw said he met scores more.
The Burmese Embassy in South Korea released a statement on Oct. 16 admitting to issues including a lack of ballot papers and that registered voters were missing from voter lists. The embassy stated that although it sent over 6,300 voter application forms to the UEC, only 3,788 ballot papers were sent back.
Win Hlaing, who led an unofficial exit poll survey in Seoul, told The Irrawaddy that of 50 voters questioned on Oct. 16, 48 said they voted for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD.
Aung Yu Naing, a 32-year-old medical student living in Australia, said his name was missing from the voter list sent by the UEC.
“I sent an email and called several times to the embassy. I was very disappointed because they announced the list one day before voting day and some people could not do anything within a short period of time,” he said.
“Fortunately, the embassy called me and said that since my name was on the township list and I submitted Form 15—and [since] there was an extra ballot for my township—they would allow me to vote.”
Khin Zay Yar Myint, a Burmese national living in Japan for more than seven years, successfully cast her vote—one of over 1,000 people registered to do so in a country with an estimated 10,000-strong Burmese population.
But the 34-year-old, who works in health services, said her cousin was only able to vote for an Upper House constituency in Rangoon Division, with two other ballot papers—for the Lower House and divisional parliament—missing.
“They could not give a firm reason [for the missing ballots]. They just said they would try to get them by the 23rd and would inform us. I signed [a document] stating that I hadn’t voted for the other two [legislatures],” said Khin Zay Yar Myint’s cousin, an English teacher.
“We live in Tokyo, so it’s not a problem for us as we can come back and vote anytime. But some people have to come by plane or Shinkansen [high-speed train]. So it’s really hard for them to come a second time.”
Advance voting in Tokyo began on Oct. 17, but the local Burmese Embassy has since announced that voters whose ballots were missing would be able to vote until Oct. 23.
UEC Chairman Tin Aye told the media on Tuesday that the commission was working with the foreign affairs ministry to rectify voting issues.
“There may be mistakes as the commission has weaknesses and the ministry of foreign affairs lacks [electoral] experience,” he said. “We have limited time [and] we haven’t sent ballots to all places yet.”
According to Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, more than 19,800 Burmese nationals had cast advance votes overseas as of Oct. 19.
Additional reporting by Tun Tun & Moe Myint