RANGOON — Min Thaik Aung, a Burmese national living in Singapore, has taken leave from work tomorrow, and had planned to use the day to cast a vote in advance of Burma’s Nov. 8 general election. Unfortunately, he has since learned that his name is not on the list of eligible voters that Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) sent back to the Burmese Embassy in the city-state.
He said the embassy had announced that those whose names did not appear on the list would not be able to cast an advanced vote, without exception. The 29-year-old sales executive now looks likely to miss out on only the second chance to vote that he’s ever had, unless he can cobble together the money, and motivation, to buy a flight back to Burma to vote in-country on election day.
If the numbers tell a story, it is Burmese nationals living in Singapore who are most invested in the upcoming nationwide vote, which many hope will be Burma’s freest and fairest in more than two decades. Among about 34,000 voters who registered to cast an advanced vote overseas, Burmese in Singapore account for some 20,000.
Others will return to Burma to cast a ballot on election day in a “Fly to Vote” campaign that has enlisted at least 140 Burmese nationals in Singapore. Win War War Tun, who has lived almost 15 years in Singapore, is one of them.
“I have never cast a vote in my whole life. It has never been transparent like it is now,” the 35-year-old told The Irrawaddy. “I would like to cast my vote inside my country, now that I have decided to vote.”
Win War War Tun said she did not vote in Burma’s 2010 election because opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, while hundreds of other pro-democracy activists and ethnic rights campaigners were serving time as prisoners of conscience.
“I didn’t cast my vote [in 2010] because it would have been like watering a poisonous tree,” said Win War War Tun, who works as an administrative supervisor in Singapore.
Flawed But Improved
Min Thaik Aung’s disappointment this week was reflective of broader shortcomings in advanced voting procedures this year. In Singapore, the embassy announced the eligible voter list just three days before the first votes were accepted on Thursday, despite voters being required to notify the embassy of their intention to vote two months in advance.
Still, civil society groups and election observers overall have reacted favorably to advanced voting procedures this year, in contrast to a preceding process that is believed to have helped manipulate outcomes five years ago. That election saw the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claim a commanding but widely discredited victory.
If you vote, there is at least a chance that your vote may go to the party that you like. If you don’t vote, you have no chance at all.”
Win Hlaing, an engineer working in Singapore for nine years, cast the first vote of his lifetime on Thursday morning. “I voted because I want my [ethnic] people to win,” the 37-year-old ethnic Mon man told The Irrawaddy after casting his vote. “I want to see more Mon MPs in the parliament. If possible, I want the Mon to form the state government in Mon State.”
“The change I want to see is we would like to determine our own fate,” he added.
Each Burmese embassy was responsible for arranging the day or days that advanced voting would take place, with all foreign missions required to return the marked ballots by Oct. 30.
The embassies in Singapore and South Korea are allowing voting from Oct. 15-18, while their counterpart in Australia began taking ballots on Wednesday and will accept votes through Saturday.
Burmese citizens in Malaysia will cast their vote on Oct. 18, and their compatriots in Thailand will do so one day earlier.
Though Singapore boasts the highest number of registered advanced voters, Thailand far surpasses all other countries in terms of the number of Burmese migrant workers, with an estimated 3 million or more living in Thailand legally or illegally. Despite this, only a few hundred names will appear as eligible voters on the list at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok on Oct. 17, a massive gap that has been chalked up to apathy, difficult registration requirements and the fact that many do not have the financial means or required permission from employers to travel to the embassy, among other hurdles.
A 25-year-old Burmese working in Bangkok described her struggle to obtain information about advanced voting from the Burmese Embassy there. She said she had called the embassy continually for three days to find out about the procedure, but no one answered the phone.
In Australia, some Burmese complained of a similar dearth of information.
A student studying in Adelaide said she was not informed by her embassy of how to vote or a voting date. She said the lack of information was ultimately not of practical consequence, however, because advanced voting was only taking place in the Australian capital Canberra, 600 miles to the east and one round-trip plane ticket that she could not afford.
But as advanced voting at overseas missions continues this week, it is clear that stories of both success and failure will not be difficult to find.
Myo Sett Thwe, a 33-year-old Burmese studying in Sydney, said he had cast a vote because he believes “it is the highest right of a citizen, as well as a responsibility.”
Although it was “an easy and comfortable” experience for the master’s student in public health studies, he said others were not so fortunate.
“I found that many people who were already on the voter list in Myanmar were not entered on the embassy’s voting list, even though they had done all the necessary procedures,” said Myo Sett Thwe, who is on leave from his job as an administrative officer at Burma’s Ministry of Health to further his studies.
“The officials were not helpful in these situations and they couldn’t even give a reasonable explanation for those mistakes. So some people felt that was disgraceful and they complained about it, but the embassy just tried to shift blame to the election commission.”
Another Burmese abroad, living in Sydney for four and half years, said she had reversed course and now intends to vote after first rejecting the idea.
“I don’t trust the election commission. I think all of the advanced votes will go to the other party that we don’t like,” she said. “But after a while, I discussed it with one of my friends who is very active in politics and she encouraged me to participate.
“She said, ‘If you vote, there is at least a chance that your vote may go to the party that you like. If you don’t vote, you have no chance at all. They can cheat you in whatever circumstance, but it will be even worse if they stamp the other party on your blank voting card.’”
The 45-year-old mechanical engineer has verified that her name is correctly enumerated on the eligible voter list in Canberra, and she plans to cast her vote there on Saturday.
“In the end, it is going to happen, and I am very excited to vote.”