Myanmar’s Ethnic Parties Fear Loss of Vote Share as Lower House Approves Eased Residency Rules

By Lawi Weng 26 February 2020

Ethnic political parties in Myanmar have voiced opposition to the approval by the Lower House of a draft bylaw that would lower to 90 days the length of time migrant workers must reside in a location in order to be allowed to vote there. The change in the residency requirement, which was approved by the Lower House on Feb. 20, was proposed by the Union Election Commission (UEC), though it had initially sought a reduction to less than 90 days from the current law’s 180 days.

Fourteen political parties, including members of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), issued a joint statement on Feb. 24 listing their objections to the draft law proposed by the UEC. Among these were the difficulty of proving that migrants have resided in an ethnic region for 90 days, and the dilution of ethnic people’s voting power in their home regions that would result from enabling more migrants to vote. The ethnic parties are particularly worried about the effect of allowing ethnic Burmese migrants who move to non-Burmese ethnic states to vote in their new locations. In the statement, they said the UEC did not need to amend the current law, as it caused no problems for voters.

“Amendment of the current law should not benefit a person or a party. It should give priority to the holding of free and fair elections,” the statement reads.

Ethnic parties first opposed the UEC’s move when it submitted its draft amendment to Parliament in October. Various ethnic parties wrote letters to the UEC saying the move would hurt ethnic voters.

The Lower House debated the UEC’s draft amendment on Feb. 20, and approved a change in the UEC’s proposal to stipulate a residency requirement of at least 90 days. The UEC originally proposed a requirement of less than 90 days.

The ethnic political parties urged the UEC to retain the current law’s stipulation of a 180-day minimum, or else arrange for migrant workers to cast advance ballots or let them go back to their home constituencies to vote. The ethnic parties do not want migrant workers from other parts of Myanmar to vote in their regions, as they are worried their share of the vote will decrease. However, the ethnic parties said the UEC ignored them.

Nai Lyi Tama, joint secretary of the Mon Unity Party and a member of the UNA, told The Irrawaddy today that the ethnic parties proposed the points they wanted to amend to the UEC in order to ensure free and fair elections. However, the Lower House approved a draft including a requirement of at least 90 days, despite the parties having carefully outlined the points it opposed, he said.

“[Ruling party] lawmakers need to understand the democratic system. They should not use their majority to silence the voice of the minority; instead they should carefully listen to the voice of the minority,” he said.

“Democracy does not mean using the majority vote to defeat the minority. But, if we look at the action of the Lower House, they used their power to [silence] the minority,” he said.

The change in the requirement will become law if approved by the Upper House.

Myanmar’s main political parties, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), fielded candidates in ethnic regions during the most recent elections, winning in some constituencies.

The ethnic parties worry the proposed amendment will make it harder for ethnic voters to elect their preferred ethnic candidates. They see the amendment as little more than an attempt to win more parliamentary seats in the ethnic states—especially by the NLD, which currently holds power.

According to the ethnic parties, migrants’ main reason for moving into ethnic states is to work, so they should return to their home constituencies to vote.

U Ngwe Lin, a member of the executive committee of the Democratic Party for a New Society, a party considered friendly to the UNA, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that, “More Burmese migrants are looking for work in the ethnic states. They come to the ethnic areas to seek jobs. They have no other reason for coming to the ethnic areas, and they go back to their hometowns after their work is done. If we let migrants vote in the ethnic states, it will make it harder for local ethnic people to elect the candidates they like. Therefore, our view is that it is dangerous for local minorities to let migrants vote in ethnic areas.”

The proposed amendment to the current law is good for the big political parties, as they will gain votes in ethnic areas, he said.

The main problem is the UEC, according to U Ngwe Lin. “The UEC did not listen to the voices of the ethnic parties. I don’t believe the amended law will allow for free and fair elections,” he said.

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