Election 2020

Only a Fraction of Myanmar Migrants Have Applied to Vote in November Election

By Zaw Zaw Htwe 21 August 2020

More than 4 million Myanmar nationals are living overseas, but only about 100,000 have filed applications to vote in the upcoming general election, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).

The 2020 general election will be held on Nov. 8 with an estimated 37 million eligible voters in the country, not counting military personnel.

But that total doesn’t include over 4 million Myanmar nationals living abroad, who are also eligible to vote.

In early July, voter registration forms known as Form 15 (an official request from someone who is outside their home constituency to vote in advance) were distributed to citizens living abroad via the official websites of embassies, the Union Election Commission (UEC) and MOFA.

Previously, the UEC said Form 15 must be sent back to the relevant embassy between July 16 and Aug. 5.

Myanmar embassies abroad later gave nationals two additional weeks to submit the form because in countries like Thailand and Malaysia, where millions of Myanmar migrants are working, there had been difficulties in getting or downloading the registration form and in submitting it.

Most of the migrants are not familiar with the necessary tools on the internet, including email. Meanwhile they have not received voter education for the election, Myanmar migrant rights activists have pointed out.

On Wednesday, MOFA announced that it had handed to the UEC 109,470 registration forms (Form 15) of nationals living abroad after receiving those forms via the 45 Myanmar embassies including consulates across the world.

MOFA said that it also handed about 1,821 Form 3 documents (an official request from someone whose name has not been listed on the voters list of their home constituency to vote in the election) of nationals living abroad to the UEC.

The Form 3 can still be sent by citizens living abroad until Aug. 21, said MOFA.

U Aung Soe Win, director general of the planning and administrative department of MOFA, told  The Irrawaddy on Thursday that for the upcoming election, the UEC had received three times more  voter application forms than in the 2015 general election.

In the 2015 general election, only around 30,000 out of the 4 million nationals abroad managed to submit the application forms necessary to cast a vote, according to the UEC.

“No more Form 15s will be transferred to the UEC. We will transfer the Form 3s that are sent until Aug. 21” said U Aung Soe Win.

In the previous general election, only around 600 of nearly 4 million Myanmar nationals in Thailand—representing the majority of Myanmar nationals living abroad—managed to vote.

Myanmar migrant rights activists and migrant workers said that in the 2015 general election, the Myanmar Embassy failed to inform its citizens in Thailand or set up sites to cast ballots.

However, for the upcoming 2020 general election, nearly 40,000 out of nearly 4 million migrant workers in Thailand have submitted the application forms to cast ballots, according to the data of the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok.

Out of an estimated 550,000 Myanmar migrants living in Malaysia, 6,450 have applied to the UEC for voting in the 2020 general election, according to U Aung Zaw Min, Myanmar labor attaché at the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. In the previous election, only 504 Myanmar nationals managed to cast ballots in Malaysia.

However, in Singapore, where many well-educated Myanmar nationals are living and working, the numbers were better. Out of around 30,000 who applied to vote across the world, more than 19,000 Myanmar nationals living in Singapore managed to cast advanced ballots for the 2015 election, according to the UEC’s report.

For the upcoming 2020 general election, Myanmar migrant rights organizations in Thailand and Malaysia have asked the Myanmar government and UEC to open the sub-polling stations in some areas where most of its nationals are living and working.

On July 8, Myanmar President U Win Myint also instructed the electoral officials and ministers that they need to work to ensure the election is free and fair, and citizens living abroad can still exercise their right to vote.

The President said that this year, officials must safeguard citizens’ rights to vote as mandated by law.

“It is important that eligible voters not lose their right to vote. Losing the right to vote is losing their rights as a citizen or their natural rights” said President U Win Myint.

Myanmar’s UEC and MOFA told The Irrawaddy that they have requested that the Thai government allow the opening of sub-polling stations in some areas where most Myanmar eligible voters are living.

“We would arrange the polling stations only at the permitted places because this [involves] our country’s affairs in other countries. We even need permission for the elections to be held at our embassies and consulate offices,” said MOFA’s director general U Aung Soe Win.

U Aung Kyaw, chairman of Thailand’s Mahachai-based Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) where around 400,000 Myanmar workers are living and working, told The Irrawaddy that workers would face difficulties in voting if polling stations are to be placed only at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok.

This is because many Myanmar workers don’t know where the embassy is located in Thailand, he added.

However, Myanmar Embassy officials in Bangkok have promised that they will arrange transportation for the eligible voters to cast advance ballots at the embassy if polling stations are not allowed to be opened at the places outside of the embassy, said U Aung Kyaw.

When asked about his comment that Myanmar migrant eligible voters are now in limbo because of the uncertain locations of polling stations, U Aung Kyaw said “Don’t underestimate the migrants’ role in general elections. They are citizens, and they have the right to vote. The Myanmar government and UEC are responsible for safeguarding their voting rights.”

Another migrant rights activist, U Aung Aung, vice chairman of the Dhamasettka philanthropic society based in Johor in Malaysia, told The Irrawaddy that 400 applications out of a total of 700 they helped Myanmar migrants to submit were canceled due to being incomplete since their passports were kept by their employers.

However, they will arrange transportation for eligible voters from Johor to travel to the Myanmar Embassy for voting.

U Aung Aung added that the Myanmar government and embassy need to ask employers in Malaysia to allow the absence of Myanmar migrant voters on voting day.

Currently, Myanmar has 94 registered political parties. They will vie for a total of 1,171 seats that are up for grabs in both houses of the Union Parliament and in the state and regional legislatures.

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