Election 2020

Myanmar Migrants in Northern Thailand Vote for Peace, Progress in Their Homeland

By Nyein Nyein 15 October 2020

CHIANG MAI, Thailand—Toom Mauk Harn, a native of Mong Pan Township in southeastern Shan State who now lives in Chiang Mai, is one of the many migrants who fled to northern Thailand to escape rampant fighting between local ethnic armed groups and government troops some 20 years ago.

On Sunday, the 42-year-old ethnic Shan cast his advance ballot in Myanmar’s November general election. He did so at the Myanmar Consulate General in Chiang Mai.

“I believe change will come gradually. That’s why I exercised my rights and fulfilled my duty. We will wait and see how much more change there will be in the next five years. I believe it will be better,” he said, while waiting outside the consulate for his turn to vote.

Toom Mauk Harn is among 1,027 Myanmar migrants in northern Thailand who registered to vote via advance ballots in the November election. Worldwide, more than 100,000 Myanmar nationals overseas registered for early voting at 45 different embassies and consulates. Those ballots are being cast between Oct. 1 and Oct. 18. The voting period differs depending on their country of residence.

Toom Mauk Harn (left) and another volunteer cast their advance ballots at the Myanmar Consulate General in Chiang Mai on Oct. 11, 2020. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

In Thailand’s nine northern provinces, including Chiang Mai, an estimated 60,000-70,000 Myanmar migrants are working. But the majority of them failed to register as advance voters.

The reasons for failing to register are varied. Some live far away from Chiang Mai. Some never received information about the registration process. And some were not able to leave their work to register, according to volunteers working on migrant voter registration.

When the three-day voting period was completed on Tuesday, the consulate announced that a total of 641 people (62 percent of registered voters) had cast their ballots. That’s in stark contrast to the 2015 election when there was no consulate in Chiang Mai and 30 to 40 Myanmar migrants had to travel to Bangkok to cast their votes.

Compared to 2015, more information about the election reached migrant communities this time around. Volunteers said that was partly because political parties have campaigned online to reach voters, not only inside Myanmar, but also outside of the country.

In addition, volunteers like Toom Mauk Harn helped early voters with advance voting education, explaining the process of casting a ballot. Most are ethnic Shan, but there are other ethnic groups such as Chin, Kayah, Kachin, Karen, Lisu, Mro, Rakhine, Bamar and Gurkha involved in advance voting.

Toom Mauk Harn works as the coordinator of the Migrant Assistance Program (MAP)’s multimedia program, under which the MAP aired a radio voter education program in the Shan and Burmese languages to listeners in Myanmar migrant communities in Thailand.

Volunteers explain the voting process to voters before they cast their ballots at the Myanmar Consulate General in Chiang Mai on Oct. 13, 2020. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

About 80 percent of the registered voters in Chiang Mai are originally from Shan State. In interviews with about six dozen early voters, The Irrawaddy found that many voted for the popular Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), known locally as the “Tiger Head” party. Others said they voted for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). In contrast, most Myanmar migrants who cast advance votes at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok last week said they voted for the NLD.

Despite differences in their party of choice, most of the voters shared a call for peace in their homeland since many had to leave their homes due to armed conflict.

Among the migrant voters demonstrating their dedication to democratic change in Myanmar were those who are disabled and mothers with toddlers who came to cast advance ballots despite the difficulty of traveling.

Ah Ja, a 38-year-old ethnic Kachin woman from Mogaung Township of Kachin State cast her first ever ballot on Tuesday. Despite being disabled, she took buses for 30 minutes to reach the consulate from her home in Maejo on the outskirts of Chiang Mai.

“I was so worried about making mistakes when casting the ballot. I don’t want my ballot to be rejected, so I studied in advance about how to vote. I was so excited for a week,” she said after casting her vote, with joyful tears in her eyes.

Ah Ja checks her ballot papers before voting at the Myanmar Consulate General in Chiang Mai on Oct. 13, 2020. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

Nang Kyi and Sai Nanda, a couple from Shan State’s Kyethi Township, jumped on their motorbike on Saturday to go to the consulate from their home in San Pa Tong district of Chiang Mai, which is some 40 km away, to cast their advance votes. On the way their vehicle was hit by a car and both sustained minor injuries. But the accident did not deter them from casting their ballots. They said they hoped the candidates they chose would demand action “for peace” on their behalf.

Other voters like Nang Hsu from Mong Hsu Township in Shan State also hoped the ballots they cast would bring some more positive changes to their native country in the future.

“When everything is okay and Myanmar is good to live in, we will go back there one day,” she said.

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