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Politics

Suffrage for Squatters Poses Pre-Poll Challenge

Tens of thousands of squatters in Rangoon are vexing efforts to compile accurate eligible voter lists in the commercial capital ahead of Burma’s general election.


RANGOON — Tens of thousands of squatters in Rangoon are vexing efforts to compile an accurate roster of eligible voters in the commercial capital, according to the regional electoral subcommission chairman, who said an “invasion” of migrants in recent years is proving a logistical challenge ahead of Burma’s general election.

The Union Election Commission (UEC) rolled out a fourth and final batch of preliminary voter lists in several divisions and states this week including Rangoon, but subcommission chief Ko Ko estimates that up to 100,000 people in the city who have not been issued household registration certificates are not currently eligible to cast a ballot.

These populations are particularly dense in industrial zones such as Rangoon’s Hlaing Tharyar Township, where many have taken up residence after moving to the city in search of work. A lack of household registration certificates, combined with the fact that many of these migrants also don’t hold national identity cards, is presenting a “headache” for local election officials, Ko Ko told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.

The subcommission chairman said no up-to-date list of squatter populations in Rangoon exists, but he estimated that a township like Hlaing Tharyar had an unregistered migrant population of at least 30,000. In Rangoon Division, which the 2014 census found to have a population of nearly 7.4 million, Ko Ko said the total squatter population was likely more than 100,000 people.

The Irrawaddy attempted to meet with an officer of the Rangoon Division Population and Immigration Department to obtain a more precise headcount of the division’s squatter population, but the official was not available on Thursday.

Ko Ko said election officials were open to granting squatters suffrage, and to that end an exception would be made for squatters who are citizens but lack the otherwise required documents to vote, if they can provide letters of support from their employer and quarter administrator.

“The people who are going through the country like gypsies weren’t included in the voter list. This long-term invasion is a kind of headache for me. If these people are left off the list, many people will spit on our efforts and the UEC.”

With the clock winding down on an election slated for early November, the UEC is working to establish a timeframe for the enfranchisement of these populations, he said.

For migrants who have not lived in Rangoon for at least six months, their only shot at suffrage is to return to the place where they have been registered as a resident, either on Election Day or ahead of the poll through advanced voting procedures.

Either way, Ko Ko is urging all migrants to return to the township in which they are enumerated on household registration certificates in order to check that they are correctly listed ahead of the vote.

Migrants who have lived in Rangoon for more than six months and want to vote in the commercial capital are also being asked to travel to their former place of residence in order to have their name removed from that list.

But Mya Nandar, a member of the board of directors of the New Myanmar Foundation, said migrants without identity documents or the requisite household registration certificate should be given leeway, so long as they are citizens.

She told The Irrawaddy that for many, the UEC’s expectation that migrants will travel, in some cases hundreds of miles, to check that their names are correctly enumerated cannot be reconciled with the financial constraints of an often hand-to-mouth existence.

For them, putting food on the table takes precedence over placing a ballot in a box.

“A huge internal migrant worker [population] can’t afford to go back to their place to check the voter list,” said Mya Nandar, whose New Myanmar Foundation is carrying out voter education initiatives. “If the UEC is unwilling to resolve the problem, lots of ballot paper will be wasted, political parties will be frustrated and voters will be disenfranchised. That should not be, it’s unacceptable.”

She suggested providing squatters with a form of temporary household registration status.

Hlaing Tharyar election subcommission chairman Thein Soe said Thursday that the most recent count of squatters, from 2014, put the figure at about 40,000 people. Local authorities are trying to compile an updated list and that process is expected to conclude by the end of June, but the Thein Soe said the transient nature of some populations made ascertaining an accurate picture difficult. Many workers move to Hlaing Tharyar in the summertime and return to Irrawaddy Division for the rice harvest, he explained.

Despite more than 30 civil society organizations participating in voter education efforts, Myo Min Htun, president of the Public Contribute Students Democracy Party, said that knowledge about the election among squatters was low.

Soe Kyi, who has lived as a squatter on Kan Pat Street in Hlaing Tharyar Township for more than three years, is a case in point.

“No one has come to collect the squatter households list in our quarter. And we don’t know the meaning of voter education,” he told The Irrawaddy this week.
The majority of more than a dozen squatters interviewed by The Irrawaddy on Thursday had not heard anything about voter lists from government personnel nor civil society groups.

A final nationwide display of voter lists is planned following announcement of the election date, likely sometime in August.

The process has been subject to criticism from civil society groups and political parties, who complain that the lists are riddled with errors.

This article has been corrected to indicate that the latest batch of preliminary voter lists released by the UEC is the fourth and final release, not the third.