NGOs Seek Key Changes to Election Monitoring Rules

By Nobel Zaw & Paul Vrieze 14 January 2015

RANGOON — Local and international civil society organizations will request Burma’s Union Election Committee (UEC) this week to make a number of important changes to the draft rules for independent election monitoring during the general elections in late 2015.

NGO representatives said overall they were satisfied with the first draft of “the ethics, rules and procedures for election monitoring,” which the commission sent to the NGOs for consultation in mid-December, but they suggested that several provisions need to be changed in order to bring the rules in line with international standards and address outstanding concerns.

In late October or early November 2015, Burma is tentatively scheduled to hold its first free and fair democratic elections after decades of direct military rule. Dozens of local and several international NGOs will carry out independent monitoring of the polls.

Some 30 NGOs are participating in the consultation process on the monitoring rules, which is being supported by the US-based International Foundation of Electoral Systems. On Thursday they will submit their suggested amendments to the commission.

Thant Zin, project manager at Election Education Observation Partnerships, a group of local NGOs involved in the consultation, said the commission should amend Article 6 of the Code of Ethics as it bans monitors from conducting post-polling interviews with voters to determine for which party they voted.

Few countries that have allowed independent election monitors have imposed a blanket restriction on conducting exit polls, which offer an important method of independently gathering information on how the public has voted.

Thant Zin said it was important to amend Article 6 and allow monitors to interview voters, perhaps by specifying that such interviews can only be conducted at a certain distance from polling stations.

Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, executive director of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, said Chapter 5 of the draft lacks details on application and registration procedures for monitoring organizations. He said an article should be added to specify the criteria for accepting an organization’s registration.

“There are no criteria for rejecting registration and it means that the decision depends on the commission, so we want to know the exact criteria [for registration]… and how we can appeal if we are rejected,” said Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, whose group was among eight NGOs that met on Monday to discuss the draft rules.

Other points of concern include a provision in Chapter 7 that requires individual domestic monitors to register their ethnicity with the Election Commission. “In some ethnic states, there could be problems related to disclosing the ethnicity [of the monitor]. So we suggested to the UEC that they drop it,” said Ye Kyaw Swar Myint.

He said clarification is needed for vague language in Article 16, as it could be potentially be used to prevent monitors from publicly discussing polling irregularities. The article currently states monitors cannot speak out about results they observe during vote counting and “other related information” until the commission does.

Some NGO representatives believe Article 19 needs to be clarified as it mentions that monitors can receive accreditation from the commission only 15 days before the election. Monitoring activities generally start months in advance of the polls and NGOs would need to know what activities they can carry out before receiving accreditation.

Bidhayak Das, Burma country representative at the Asian Network for Free Elections, which participated in the consultation, said the draft rules “look like a well-researched document, expect for some sections that need more clarity.

“For now all I can say is that we like all others are part of the process of submitting our feedback and we hope that all the questions asked will find meaningful answers.”

Su Su Hlaing, program manager of Karen Woman Empowerment Group said, her organization wanted Article 33 to be amended and drop the requirement for monitors to register with the local police station “and other departments” before they commence monitoring activities.

Su Su Hlaing also criticized the one-month consultation period, saying it was too short for NGOs to provide the Election Commission with well-prepared suggestions for amendments to the monitoring rules.

“I don’t like the draft and they should have provided more time for commenting on the draft, as we need to discuss it [with NGOs] in other states and divisions,” she said. “Most of the polling stations are situated in rural areas and we have to make sure that the draft rules are suitable for the people doing the monitoring in rural areas.”

Election Commission officials could not be reached for comment on the monitoring rules Wednesday.

During the 2015 elections, the National League for Democracy of popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is the main challenger to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a political organization filled with ex-junta members.

In the past, concerns have been raised over the independence of the Election Commission, which is chaired by Tin Aye, a former junta general and ex-USDP lawmaker who was appointed by President Thein Sein in 2011. The commission’s actions are being closely watched to see if it will be a fair arbiter in the important 2015 poll.