Tie a blindfold around a man’s eyes, spin him around three times, hand him a dart and tell him to hit the bull’s-eye. This is the picture that comes to mind when one considers the ongoing effort by Union Election Commission (UEC) officials to correct the lists enumerating Burma’s eligible voters.
What was presented as a “systematic approach” to cleaning the voters’ registry is proving to be anything but. Rather, the impression one gets is of an effort that is utterly disorganized, inspiring little confidence in the ability of the election body to get the job done in time for the Nov. 8 vote.
As we enter the last week of the final public display of the lists ahead of election day, a classic example of this mess is unfolding in Rangoon’s densely populated Hlaing Tharyar Township, where allegedly more than 200,000 voters have been left off the list. And once again, the UEC and relevant subcommissions are being blamed for the seemingly impending mass disenfranchisement.
The lapse might not be intentional, but surely something has gone terribly wrong. Only 48 days are left until voters will seek to cast their ballots for their preferred candidates, but to date the UEC is unable to guarantee that all eligible voters will have a chance to exercise their franchise.
This is no inspiration for voters who are keen to be part of the historic election. It’s true that apathy is a concern that has been expressed in the months leading up to the vote, with one explanation for the indifference being that the public “doesn’t trust the government.” All the more reason, then, to make the process of voter verification as credible as possible. There are millions of Burmese who do desperately want the opportunity to vote in the country’s freest and fairest election in decades, and millions more who might be persuaded to exercise this civic duty if they believed in an electoral process of which accurate voter lists are an integral part.
In Hlaing Tharyar, the widespread exclusion stems largely from the township’s substantial migrant worker population. These are people from across the country who have come to Rangoon to find jobs. Speaking to the Myanmar Times, the National League for Democracy (NLD) chairperson in Hlaing Tharyar Township said he feared election officials there were “trying to shrink the list.”
This problem was not unexpected; The Irrawaddy reported on the challenges posed by the township’s migrant population nearly three months ago. The election commission could have used the situation in Hlaing Tharyar to bolster flagging confidence in its ability to ensure a credible election, but based on the disenfranchisement brought to light with the voter lists’ final display beginning Sept. 14, it has failed to do so.
Perhaps it’s time, then, to consider the words of the Burmese lawyer Thet Paing Soe, who told me recently: “In Burma, what meets the eye and ear is not what you get.” It’s an assertion that, regarding the coming vote and repeatedly uttered commitments from the government to ensuring its credibility, looks increasingly to be a lamentable fact of life.
Even assuming that top UEC officials all the way down to village and ward subcommission staff are committed to obtaining the cleanest voter lists possible, it’s clear that the “systematic approach” to voter registration either lacks sufficient contingency plans or has fallen miserably short in terms of execution.
One very basic problem, which the UEC and those assisting the commission have failed to acknowledge, is a continuing lack of basic infrastructure in many places, which has seriously hampered the verification process; urban centers, where the nearest photocopier is likely just down the road, are not reflective of the realities on the ground in villages and other far-flung locales.
And then there’s Hlaing Tharyar, hardly far-flung or rural, and yet the Myanmar Times reported last week that a shortage of Form 3s was being blamed in part for officials’ inability to get the lists up to scratch. Sure, a river and a few miles separate Hlaing Tharyar from Rangoon’s bustling downtown core, but are we really to believe that this problem is not remediable in less than a day?
There are still measures that could salvage the credibility of the voter registration process. Ensuring that applicants for inclusion on the lists are provided a hassle-free means of proving their legitimate claim to franchise would be a start. Most people excluded from the voter rolls in Hlaing Tharyar have been residing in the township for several years and have temporary household documents issued by local ward administrative offices that could be used to validate their claims to residency.
Another measure could be to extend the list review period beyond Sept. 27 in places like Hlaing Tharyar, where the degree of the problem appears to be severe.
The UEC has shown some receptiveness to suggestions on how to improve a variety of aspects of the election and campaign period. Entering the final week of voter list displays nationwide, further flexibility from the commission is due if it wants its stated commitment to a credible poll taken seriously.
Unless, indeed, all this bluster about “free and fair elections” really is as someone explained to me the other evening during a dinnertime election discourse: “Don’t be fooled by the seasoning on your salad—it’s just the [window] dressing.”
Saw Nyi Nyi is a researcher and commentator on political and election-related affairs in Southeast Asia.