RANGOON — Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) has begun distributing advanced vote ballots for more than 34,000 citizens abroad who have registered to vote, a sizeable contingent that nonetheless represents only a fraction of the estimated population of Burmese nationals residing overseas.
Civil society groups and election observers have reacted favorably to the advanced voting procedure this year, in contrast to a preceding process that is believed to have helped manipulate outcomes in Burma’s 2010 general election. That poll saw the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claim a commanding but widely discredited victory.
The disparity, however, between registered overseas advanced voters compared with the total population abroad—estimated at 4 million to 5 million people—has raised some concern about what could happen inside the country on Nov. 8, when millions of names will likely remain on the voter rolls of constituencies in which the listed individuals are no longer resident.
“The process for the advanced voting is very good and acceptable. There won’t be manipulation in advanced votes,” said Thant Zin Aung, executive director of the local civil society group Forward Institute. “But our concern is the votes of migrant workers who are left out of advanced voting, but can’t come back to the country to vote.”
A UEC official said ballots are first being sent, along with the names of registered advanced voters abroad, to the election subcommissions in which they are believed to be listed on voter lists. Those lists were based on household registration certificates, and their preliminary release earlier this year and a second public display last month were accompanied by a storm of criticism over numerous inaccuracies.
If these registered voters clear local subcommissions’ scrutiny, their names will be removed from the in-country voter list and unmarked, sealed ballots will be forwarded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is responsible for distributing them to embassies. Foreign missions are required to return the ballots by Oct. 30.
Each embassy is responsible for setting its own day for advanced voters to cast their ballots at the mission, with most expected to target a mid-October date.
While the process is a marked improvement from the opaque manner in which advanced voting was administered in 2010, Thant Zin Aung said the missing millions—listed but not residing in any of Burma’s 330 townships, and unlikely to return to cast a vote on election day—were cause for concern.
“Around 4 to 5 million votes are going to become wasted [among about 32 million eligible voters],” he told The Irrawaddy, adding that these votes could be used to manipulate the count in some constituencies.
Though indelible ink will be used to mark voters’ fingers to make it more difficult for double voting to occur on election day, other developments in the lead up to the vote would appear to offer some scope for manipulation. Lists of eligible voters are still expected to be error-ridden on polling day, and the UEC has announced vague plans to issue “voter registration cards” for citizens who have lost identity documents in the widespread flooding that affected large parts of the country earlier this year.
These developments have clouded the outlook for who will be allowed to cast a ballot on election day, and could make decisions regarding an individual’s eligibility a localized affair based on potentially arbitrary criteria.
Ye Aung, director of The Serenity Initiative (TSI), which has been providing voter education, said election observers would need to monitor not only whether voting is fair on election day but also how voting takes place among both internal migrants and citizens abroad. He said his organization shares Thant Zin Aung’s concerns.
Chan Lian, director at the Hornbill organization, said the group has been monitoring the local election subcommission’s distribution of advanced vote ballots to the township commissions since Saturday.
He said just five people from Chin State’s Falam Township had registered to cast an advanced vote, while 93 people in Hakha Township had registered to do the same. The group’s election observers are mindful of the concerns raised by Thant Zin Aung, Chan Lian added.
“Those votes should turn out as absences. We, civil society, political parties and their representatives need to watch it closely,” he said, adding that his group had instructed its observers to crosscheck the total number of votes against advanced ballots cast and actual turnout at polling stations on election day to mitigate the risk of voter manipulation.
“I think only at some remote areas vote manipulation could happen, where locals are weak in awareness, because the UEC has invited international and local observers,” he said, while admitting that, with more than 40,000 polling stations nationwide, it would be impossible to ensure that observers are stationed at every location where votes are tallied.