RANGOON — Members of Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) who were recently appointed to represent some of the country’s largest ethnic minority groups say they are committed to helping ensure that free and fair elections take place later this year in regions where ensuring credible polls is likely to be most difficult.
The President’s Office announced the appointment of eight new ethnic minority members to the UEC on April 3, a move ethnic political parties had long urged. Proponents of an expanded UEC argued that the absence of minority voices on the commission might imperil prospects for credible elections in Burma, where the population is thought to be about 40 percent comprised of more than 100 ethnic minority groups.
Each of the seven states in Burma named after some of the country’s most populous ethnic minority groups has been assigned at least one ethnic UEC member, with Shan State granted three seats on the commission. Nyunt Tin, an ethnic Mon, was the sole ethnic minority voice on the UEC prior to April 3, and will assume the new appointees’ supervisory role for Mon State.
Sai Kham Win, who served as a member of the Karenni State electoral subcommission since 2010 and as its chairman since late 2012, was appointed to serve as that state’s UEC representative.
“We will supervise the election preparations implemented in each respective state and region by collaborating with state, district, township and ward subcommissions there,” he said. “If there are any difficulties or needs, we will report back to the UEC and resolve it.”
Like most of the country, Karenni State electoral officials are currently in the process of compiling lists of those eligible to vote, rosters Sai Kham Win said were nearly complete and would likely be made publically available in the first week of June.
“I think there will not be many difficulties in Kayah [Karenni State] for election preparations because the constituencies there are smaller and the political parties that are going to contest there are also fewer,” he said of his state, which is Burma’s smallest and based on last year’s census, second-least populous, tallying 286,738 people within its borders.
“But after the voter lists’ compilation, we will continue to conduct voter education. Given the situation there—there are many ethnic languages—we need locals who can speak ethnic languages for voter education and we have planned to collaborate with CSOs there for that. If so, I hope it will be fine for voter education,” he said.
He added that the state’s electoral subcommissions planned to post at least one individual that speaks the dominant local language at each polling station.
Two of the newly appointed ethnic UEC members, N Zaw Naw and Saw Ba Hlaing, were also part of the former UEC, which organized Burma’s last general election in 2010. That poll was largely discredited amid widespread reports of voter fraud and polling irregularities.
Saw Ba Hlaing, 69, said state governments were asked to nominate three people for appointment as ethnic UEC members, with the President’s Office choosing from among the nominees.
“It was the same in 2010,” he said. “We had ethnic UEC members who supervised their respective states. I will represent Kayin [Karen] State and I will work to hold free and fair elections successfully.”
Saw Ba Hlaing said he too would be concentrating on compiling accurate voter lists in the near term, and planned to travel to Karen State soon to work with the local electoral subcommissions.
“In 2010, there were weak points. It could be because we had no experience and it was the first time. But this time, taking lessons from the past, we will not let that happen again,” he said.
Dr. Maung Maung Kyi, who will supervise the elections in Arakan State, said he was concerned about voter list compilation in his state, where hundreds of thousands of so-called “white card holders” who case votes in previous elections were stripped of that right earlier this year.
“The [former] white card holders are not being enumerated in the ongoing voter list compilation. But among the white card holders, people from foreign countries are included but also ethnic people who don’t have an NRC [National Registration Certificate] are also included. We need to distinguish between them since in previous elections, they were all allowed to vote,” he said, adding that he would work to ensure accurate voter lists that did not include ineligible voters, nor exclude those with a right to suffrage.
The white cards, which indicated temporary citizenship, were held by a varied mix of ethnicities, most notably the country’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority. White card holders were allowed to vote in 2010 and in a 2012 by-election.
Maung Maung Kyi, 59, said that the state’s Immigration Department was taking steps to verify the citizenship of former white card holders with legitimate claims to permanent citizenship.
“After working with the UEC for over one month, I believe the commission is working honestly and also I will oversee things to ensure free and fair elections in accordance with the Constitution and rules and regulations of the UEC in my state,” he added.
Despite the ethnic UEC members’ confidence, a host of challenges are anticipated in the lead-up to the vote and on Election Day itself. Swathes of some states are under the control of a variety of ethnic armed groups, including parts of Kachin, Shan and Karen states. Some of these areas have experienced relative stability in recent years thanks to ceasefires with the government, while in others conflict has flared, such as in northeastern Shan State.
In 2010, the UEC ruled that instability made voting impossible in several ethnic constituencies.
Kyaw Win Maung, chairman of the Karen State electoral subcommission, said cooperation with ethnic armed groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Democratic Karen Benevolence Army (DKBA) had improved since 2010, when some 90 villages in Karen rebel-controlled territory were unable to vote.
The chairman said to date, however, his subcommission was still unable to secure cooperation in compiling the voter lists of about 60 villages. Efforts to do so were continuing, he added.
In Arakan State, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have lost the right to vote. The government has said it will offer a citizenship verification process to allow them to win back the right to vote, but there has been little to indicate a systematic effort by the government is underway. Even if successful, the Rohingya’s enfranchisement would likely set off another set of challenges including potential instability, with the region’s ethnic Arakanese majority overwhelming opposed to granting the Rohingya suffrage.
In addition to the linguistic obstacles highlighted by Sai Kham Win, the ethnic UEC member representing Karenni State, ethnic states pose other logistical challenges as well.
Ethnic states are also likely to field more parties’ candidates per race on average, since they are home to more ethnically diverse populations than the ethnic Bamar-dominated center of the country. The geography of the states is also on the whole more rugged and infrastructure is less developed than in the Bamar heartland, presenting challenges for both electoral officials and voters.
Harki, supervising Chin State, and the three Shan State representatives Sai Nwan Tawng, Sai Tun Thein and Dr. Sai San Win round out the roster of ethnic UEC members appointed last month.