Myanmar Migrants Flock to Bangkok to Vote

By Nyein Nyein 6 October 2020

BANGKOK – Leaving his home at 3 am, it took U Zay Yar Lin about six hours to reach Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok from Nakhon Sawan in central Thailand to vote ahead of Myanmar’s November election.

Although he has been in Thailand for 16 years, U Zay Yar Lin, originally from Yay Nan Chaung Township, Magwe Region, did not vote in the 2015 general election as he was too far from Bangkok. But he said he made time this year, “to support the party we love, which needs every single vote it can get”.

Sharing his joy after casting his ballots on Saturday, he said he could not sleep the night before because of his excitement.

Early on Saturday morning, the first day of the 16-day advance-voting period in Bangkok to participate in the Nov. 8 election, a crowd gathered in front of the embassy.

They have waited in lines to go into the polling stations at 8 am with some traveling large distances from central and southern Thailand.

For many migrants, casting an early vote is not just to exercise their rights, it is to show support for the parties they support.

U Zay Yar Lin, a migrant voter, with his daughter after casting his ballots at the embassy. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

The masked voters gave off a palpable air of excitement about playing a small part in Myanmar’s developing democratic process.

Nearly 2,000 of the more than 35,700 registered voters who have applied for early voting at the embassy in Thailand have cast advance ballots since Saturday.

A total of 101,526 overseas citizens have been approved by the Union Election Commission (UEC), with the community in Thailand representing 35 percent of the total foreign voters.

For many, it was their first election and for some voting involved considerable disruption, expense and COVID-19 precautions.

U Zay Yar Lin added: “In 2015, I did not get to vote. This is my first vote, so I was afraid as well as excited. But everything was smooth. I feel satisfied and really appreciate the support [of the embassy].”

He urged others to do the same during the 16-day voting window.

“If we could vote at any time that was convenient, it would be much better because migrant laborers cannot take time off when we please. And we have to deal with COVID-19,” he added. His family members and friends have to vote on Oct. 8, so they could not come together on Saturday.

Last week, the embassy advised voters to visit on specific days set by the embassy. It plans to receive 1,800 people per day at its three polling stations. Voters from Magwe, Bago, Tanintharyi and Yangon regions and Karen, Mon and Kachin states have been invited so far.

Migrants in Thailand cast their ballots at Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok on Oct. 4, 2020. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

U Myo Myint Than, Myanmar’s ambassador to Thailand, told The Irrawaddy on Saturday that anyone who comes to the embassy from 8 am to 6 pm between Oct. 3-18 would not lose their right to vote.

The embassy received more than 39,000 applications for early voting, but more than 1,000 forms were incomplete and not sent to the UEC for approval. Of those sent, some 1,500 were rejected as they were not on the voter lists, according to the UEC.

Many migrants in and around Bangkok voted on Sunday, their only day off.

The Irrawaddy met others who had traveled from Ranong, Surat Thani and Phuket in southern Thailand to vote.

Ko Tin Moe and six others from Surat Thani cast their ballots on Monday but he said around 40 of his colleagues could not make it.

Myanmar’s ambassador U Myo Myint Than addresses voters at Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

“Our names were on the list for Monday, so we came last night. It took at least two days so many people cannot come even though they want to vote,” said Ko Tin Moe from Waw Township in Bago Region.

U Yu Win and six others from Phuket voted on Sunday for candidates in Tanintharyi Region.

Many voters cannot travel to Bangkok, due to time, the costs and COVID-19. Travel from Phuket to Bangkok costs around 2,000 baht (83,000 kyats).

“We arranged to come to Bangkok hours after we saw our names on the list,” U Yu Win said. They arrived at 8 am on Saturday and went straight to the polling stations.

“We want to be dutiful citizens for future generations,” said U Yu Win, a fishery worker and first-time voter in his 40s.

But nearly 70 voters told The Irrawaddy they had low expectations from the candidates they supported while calling on the new government to strive to help the people.

Migrants in Thailand cast advance ballots during the 16-day voting period, which starts on Oct. 3 at Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

After early-voting applications could be submitted in July, word spread that any migrant holding legal documents, including a certificate of identity and job passport – which are obtained after verification of citizenship – are allowed to vote. They helped each other to submit applications, sharing information on the election and how to cast ballots.

More than 20 volunteers have assisted with voting at the embassy, which also communicating with voters on social media.

However, the embassy’s mismanagement has caused difficulties and misunderstandings among voters, particularly the publishing of voter lists on Facebook. Names were hard to find as many migrants could only use mobile phones to access the information.

“For many migrants, they are at the workplace from dawn to dusk and they don’t know how to use Facebook properly. The embassy’s posts for the voter list are confusing, even for the volunteers. It is really hard to find names among more than 100 photos which contain the voter list,” said Ma Moe Khaing, a volunteer at the embassy in Bangkok.

The announcement also came too late for many migrants to take leave, she said.

Apart from the Facebook list confusion, the voting process has so far run smoothly, she added.

The volunteers have also played an unofficial observer role outside the embassy, as the process does not have independent observers to monitor the electoral process.

Migrants in Thailand cast advance ballots during the 16-day voting period, which starts on Oct. 3 at Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

Many migrants told The Irrawaddy that they were worried as they only had to put their ballots papers in one box, which was not specifically for the lower and upper house, state or regional and ethnic affairs ministerial contests.

The ambassador pledged that there would be no fraud as the embassy was following the UEC’s procedures and the ballots papers will not be opened until voting ended in Myanmar on Nov. 8.

The early voting for the Nov. 8 election began in Singapore on Oct. 1, Russia, South Korea and Brunei on Oct. 2 and Japan and Thailand on Oct. 3. Unlike for the 2015 general election, when only one day for early voting was allowed, this year voters have been given between three and 18 days, depending on the numbers of voters, at 45 embassies and consulates.

In Singapore, some 32,000 nationals or 32 percent of overseas voters, can cast their ballots for 18 days compared to 16 days in Thailand.

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