As Election Nears, Migrant Voters Left in the Dark

By Nyein Nyein 30 June 2015

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — First-time voters among some 1.8 million officially registered Burmese migrants in Thailand say little to no information has been provided regarding voting in Burma’s upcoming general election, slated for early November.

The Burmese Embassy in Bangkok said last month that Burmese nationals living in Thailand would be able to register for enumeration on an overseas voter list by filling in form No. 15 and returning it to the embassy’s electoral committee for further scrutiny on their eligibility to vote.

Win Maung, Burma’s ambassador to Thailand, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the embassy had been receiving the forms from prospective overseas voters since the announcement was made.

“The information [on how to vote from Thailand] has been shared,” he said, through the 70-member, embassy-led Protecting Committee for Burmese Migrants Staying in Thailand, a network of NGOs and civil society organizations based in different parts of Thailand, including Chiang Mai in the country’s north, Mae Sai along the Thai-Burmese border, Nakhon Sawan in central Thailand and Phang Nga in the south.

Win Maung added that information on the deadline for returning the forms and procedural details for advanced voting would be made available as soon as directives were received from the Union Election Commission (UEC) in Naypyidaw. Burmese migrants who are deemed eligible to vote in the 2015 poll will be able to choose between voting in person at the Bangkok embassy in advance or on election day, which is yet to be announced.

But Burmese migrants, many of whom have lived in Thailand for years but did not have a chance to vote in Burma’s last nationwide election in 2010, largely remain in the dark when it comes to registering to vote abroad.

Tun Tun, a young migrant worker from Phuket in southern Thailand, said last week that he had not heard of the ambassador’s remarks on voting abroad, a matter of little consequence since he “has no interest in the election.”

Ying Horm, a field officer for the Chiang Mai-based Migrant Action Program, said she had not yet heard any clear indication of how the process would work for Burmese migrants in Thailand who want to vote.

“This is my first opportunity to vote in my life, but I still have little information on how to do it,” Ying Horm told The Irrawaddy, adding: “If even people like me have no idea how this will work, I have no doubt that the migrant community is also unaware of it.”

The community worker highlighted the need among migrant communities for voter awareness campaigns that would include information on the voter registration process and how to cast a ballot.

Htoo Chit, director of the Foundation for Education Development based in Phang Nga, told The Irrawaddy recently that his group has been sharing the embassy’s announcement and distributing copies of form No. 15 to migrants who are interested in voting.

“We need to encourage the migrants, regarding voter registration awareness, to contact their families back home [to ensure they are enumerated on voter lists there],” he said, referring to the fact that voter lists in Burma have been compiled based on household registration data.

In the 2010 election, Burmese migrants were not eligible to vote in part because a national verification program to issue identity documents to the millions of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand had only been initiated a year prior.

Htoo Chit shared the view that migrants’ knowledge about the general election was low and could presage a poor voter turnout among the eligible Burmese migrants in Thailand. The embassy’s distribution of voting information was also lackluster, he added, saying that if the government genuinely wanted to respect migrant workers’ suffrage, a more effective approach would be to have embassy staff and electoral commission members proactively reaching out to migrant communities to raise awareness.

According to the electoral bylaws published on the UEC website, diplomats, scholars, and delegates and their dependents are specifically guaranteed the right to vote abroad, either in advance or on election day, at the arrangement of individual embassies.

Win Maung said that for the 2015 election, any holder of an “ordinary” Burmese passport would be eligible to vote. In Thailand, ordinary passports for Burmese nationals are distinguished from temporary passports, a travel document that the majority of Burmese migrant workers hold.

Burmese migrants in Thailand are being asked to bring their ordinary passport, and copies of their national identity card and household registration certificates, when filing form No. 15 at the embassy.

The form will then be sent on to the election subcommission with which the prospective voter is registered, to confirm eligibility and remove the individual from the voter roll in Burma.

The number of Burmese ordinary passports holders in Thailand, including diplomats, scholars and migrant workers, is about 220,000 people, according to the ambassador.

Among them, about 200,000 are migrant workers in a variety of Thai industries who have applied for a program begun last year that has allowed them to swap their temporary passport for an ordinary passport by providing their national identity card and household registration certificate as proof of Burmese citizenship.

The ambassador told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that a Burmese consulate in Chiang Mai was on schedule to be opened on July 29. He added that a decision had not been made yet on whether Burmese migrants will be able to vote at the mission in northern Thailand.