Ethnic Parties in Myanmar Worried Proposed Voter Registration Changes Will Hurt Their Election Chances

By Lawi Weng 18 November 2019

Ethnic political parties in Myanmar have objected to a proposal by the Union Election Commission (UEC) to lower to 90 days the length of time migrant workers must reside in a location in order to be allowed to vote there. The current law stipulates a 180-day minimum.

The UEC on Oct. 3 submitted to Parliament a draft amendment to a bylaw that would give migrant workers in ethnic states the right to vote in a location if they have been working there for 90 days, removing the need for them to return to their hometowns to vote.

Many people in Myanmar leave their hometowns and move to other parts of the country in search of work—particularly ethnic majority Burmese looking for work in ethnic minority regions. The ethnic political parties worry they will lose votes in their regions if the UEC lets migrant workers vote in their new place of residence, according to local sources.

Gumgrawng Awng Hkam, vice chairman of the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP), told The Irrawaddy on Monday that he totally disagreed with the plan.

“We respect [workers’] rights. But they should go back to their hometowns to vote,” he said.

Letting Burmese migrants vote in the ethnic areas where they work would have many negative consequences, he added.

Local ethnic Kachin people will not be happy if the ruling National League for Democracy or the main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party won elections due to the migrant vote, he said. Such a situation would upset local people, he said, citing the problems that occurred in Tanai and Hpakant townships in Kachin State during the election in 2015 and a byelection in 2018.

Many Burmese migrants have come to work in jade and amber mines in the two townships. They voted for the NLD or the USDP, at the expense of local ethnic parties, which lost in those elections, he said.

Over the objections of the KSPP, Myanmar officials issued household registration documents to those migrant workers in Tanai and Hpaka townships, allowing them to vote in Kachin State.

“Local people understood that their ethnic party would win in their region without the advance votes for the Burmese political parties. Therefore, local people made problems, as they were not happy. If migrants vote in our region, locals will not be satisfied, and there will be more problems,” said Gumgrawng Awng Hkam.

It is very clear that the move by the UEC is aimed at affecting the result of the election next year, he said.

Sai Kyaw Nyunt, a leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the UEC’s move harmed local people’s ability to choose their representatives. Even the right to work for local ethnic political parties was affected [by the proposal from the UEC], he said, adding that the proposal served the interests of the main Burman political parties.

He urged the UEC to provide advance voting for migrant workers. If the UEC could prepare advance voting for migrants who work overseas, why couldn’t they do so for internal migrants, he asked.

“We could say that the UEC’s statement shows a lack of consideration,” Sai Kyaw Nyunt said.

He said such actions are seen in one-party states. But in Myanmar ethnic people are supposed to have equal rights, so the country can transition to a federal system. “We can’t build the country if they are only interested in power. The UEC should act neutrally, and should not act like this,” he said.

“If the UEC listens only to the voice of the party who has power, we could say the UEC is not neutral,” he said.

Nai Lyi Tama, joint secretary of the Mon Unity Party, told The Irrawaddy the party had voiced its opposition to letting migrants vote in its region since it held a meeting with the UEC in 2015. He said the UEC did not listen to the party.

“Burmese migrants came to stay in Mon region temporarily. Even if they have the right to vote wherever they are, they go back to their hometowns after voting. So, they do not understand what they are voting for,” he said.

He said the UEC’s proposal could alter the outcome of the election, helping the Burman parties to secure majorities.

If the voting result changed because of the migrant vote, the election winners cannot be seen as truly representing the people. The candidates who win will not even have a strong influence in their own constituencies, he said.

“It will be difficult to say he or she was elected by local people,” he said.

Local people have waited for a long time to elect the people they like. But the UEC’s proposal will destroy this hope, he said.

The migrant workers should go back to their hometowns and vote there, he said.

After the NLD had been in power for three months, the government issued housing registrations to migrant workers in ethnic states. This allowed them to become residents of Mon State, giving them the right to vote, according to Nai Lyi Tama.

“We have to question whether such an action by the NLD government amounts to a policy of population transfer. We disagree with the proposal and we are preparing to send a letter to the UEC,” said Nai Lyi Tama.