Election 2020

Difficulties in Voting Leave Myanmar Migrants in Limbo as Election Approaches

By Zaw Zaw Htwe 13 July 2020

YANGON—Myanmar migrants and migrant rights organizations are concerned that many voters abroad may lose their right to vote in the country’s coming general election due to difficulties with voting processes, despite the president’s instructions to electoral officials to ensure all eligible voters can participate.

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 the over 4 million Myanmar nationals living abroad who are also eligible to vote.

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

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 Union Election Commission (UEC) and election monitoring group People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE).

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

“According to the electoral laws, citizens, associate citizens and naturalized citizens have the right to vote. It is important that eligible voters must 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.

In early July, voter registration forms became been available for citizens living abroad via the official websites of embassies, the UEC and the Foreign Affairs Ministry. The form, Form 15, must be sent back to the relevant embassy between July 16 and Aug. 5.

However, in countries like Thailand and Malaysia, where millions of Myanmar migrants are working, there have been difficulties in getting or downloading the registration form and in submitting it, as most of the migrants are not familiar with the necessary tools on the internet, including email, according to Myanmar migrant rights activists.

Migrant rights activist U Aung Kyaw, chairman of the Thailand-based Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) told The Irrawaddy that the first difficulty for migrants is that they don’t know how to register to vote. He said they can’t use the process set up by the embassy since most don’t have the necessary knowledge about the internet or email.

U Aung Kyaw said the Myanmar government and the UEC should find an easier way for migrants to register by cooperating with Thailand’s own election commission, so the migrants don’t lose their right to vote.

At the time of the 2015 general election, there were nearly 4 million Myanmar migrants in Thailand—representing the majority of Myanmar nationals living abroad—but only around 600 Myanmar nationals living in the country managed to vote.

Migrant rights activist U Htoo Chit, executive director of the Thailand-based Foundation for Education and Development (FED), said a recent survey by his group and PACE found more than 90 percent of Myanmar migrants in Thailand are interested in voting in the coming election.

“They want the polling stations to be near them,” U Htoo Chit told The Irrawaddy, referring to Myanmar migrants in Thailand.

In countries like Thailand, Singapore and Korea, migrant rights organizations and other groups are helping Myanmar migrants register to vote.

Ko Sai Soe Paing, one of more than 30,000 Myanmar migrants in South Korea, told The Irrawaddy that he’s working with an election assistance committee in the country to share Form 15 with other Myanmar migrants and to help them with their registration.

He also said that he believes the Myanmar embassy could do more to ensure that Myanmar migrants don’t lose their right to vote.

In South Korea, more than 4,000 Myanmar nationals registered to vote in the 2015 election.

Ko Aung Myo Lynn, a 30-year-old migrant worker who is among the estimated 550,000 Myanmar migrants in Malaysia, told The Irrawaddy that he wasn’t able to vote in the 2015 election, when he was working in Kuala Lumpur. This year, he said he will submit his registration to the embassy both by email and by post, since he is afraid of losing his right to vote.

But he said he also needs time to go through the voter registration processes.

“This time, I will try not to lose the right to vote, as I want to support the person I trust with my vote in the election,” said Ko Aung Myo Lynn.

The other big difficulty for nationals living abroad is that most of the polling stations are placed at embassies and consulates.

U Naing Min, chief of chancery at the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur, told The Irrawaddy last week that the polling station for nationals will be placed at the embassy office again this year.

Myanmar migrants often live and work in factories and industrial zones far from a country’s capital or large cities, where embassies and consulates are located.

“Our migrants can’t easily come vote at the embassy because many have had their incomes impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Ko Thet Khaing Soe, chairman of Kuala Lumpur-based Lovely Heart, a blood donation group working with Myanmar migrants. “Only those near the embassy can easily vote.”

He also said that “sub-polling stations” should be placed in other states and regions where most Myanmar workers are living since all nationals are not able to travel to the Myanmar embassy for voting.

According to the UEC’s report on the 2015 election, only 504 Myanmar nationals in Malaysia cast ballots that year, despite the fact that an estimated 550,000 Myanmar citizens are living in the country.

In Singapore, where many well-educated Myanmar nationals are living and working, the numbers were better: more than 19,000 nationals managed to cast advanced ballots for the 2015 election, according to the UEC’s report.

But in Thailand, U Htoo Chit said that the situation is similar to in Malaysia.

“It would be easier to vote if the government would place polling stations in the industrial zone areas where thousands of Myanmar migrants are working and living,” said U Htoo Chit. “It is difficult for workers to travel to Bangkok for voting.”

According to Ko Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, director of PACE, there should be another way for eligible voters abroad to ensure they don’t lose their right to vote in the coming election.

“Voting is available only at embassies and consulates. This system is not okay for voters. Not all Myanmar citizens are living in those cities where Myanmar embassies are located,” said Ko Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint.

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