Burmese Exiles, Now British Citizens, Head to Polls in UK

By Nyein Nyein 7 May 2015

LONDON — Members of the Burmese diaspora living in the United Kingdom will have their opportunity to participate in the country’s general election on Thursday, with some set to exercise their right to vote for the first time in their lives.

Polling suggests no party will gain an outright majority on the floor of the House of Commons and the outcome of the election will likely not be known for several days afterward. In a campaign characterised by widespread voter apathy and heated criticism of the country’s major parties, Burmese migrants are enthusiastic about the poll.

“It is a big deal for me to cast my vote, because even now there has been no chance for many of my own people in the villages of Burma to cast votes in a democratic system,” said Zoya Phan, campaign manager of the London-based Burma Campaign.

Born in strife-torn Karen State and spending her childhood in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border, Phan resettled in Britain 10 years ago. After being awarded citizenship last year, Thursday will be the first time she has been given an opportunity to participate in an election.

The UK is home to roughly 10,000 foreign-born people with Burmese lineage, according to OECD figures. Among their numbers are refugees who have since successfully sought British citizenship, asylum seekers and migrant workers.

Orng Joi Tamoi, a Burmese migrant and potential first-time voter residing in Scotland, said he was unsure whether he would participate. Born in Mon State’s Kyaikmayaw town, Orng Joi Tamoi was awarded UK citizenship last year, but remains interested in Burma’s current era of political and democratic reform.

“I haven’t decided whether to participate in the election, even though I have the right to vote and registered to vote,” he said. “I wish that the first time I voted was in a constituency of my own in Burma.”

In what is set to be a remarkable poll, negotiations during the aftermath of this year’s general election are expected to take some time as the Labour and Conservative parties compete to form a governing majority with the assistance of several minor parties represented on the crossbench.

In the UK, both major parties have promised to implement stricter controls on immigration into Britain. The Conservative Party has promised a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, while Labour has promised to revitalize the country’s National Health Service.

As polls opened, The Irrawaddy visited two polling stations in predominantly migrant areas of London on Thursday. Voting was orderly and the mood of those queued at the ballot box was evocative of the dutiful performance of an errand, on an otherwise unremarkable day.