The Results Are In: Rangoon Polls Not Up to Scratch

By The Irrawaddy 30 December 2014

RANGOON — At around 4pm on Saturday, the doors were closing at 1,086 polling stations across Burma’s commercial capital, Rangoon, wrapping up what was expected to be a “landmark” day in a city that had not seen elected municipal leaders in more than 60 years. Poll workers in each station—mostly teachers and other civil servants—peeled the tape around seven giant Tupperware-like bins and began to count the color-coded cards inside.

The starkest proof of the failure of Saturday’s elections was the turnout. Rangoon is Burma’s largest city, home to roughly 5 million people. Of those, only 409,889 people were eligible to vote because of a one vote per household limit. That’s about 8 percent of the total population, and only 26 percent of that fraction of the city turned up at the booths. About 2 percent of Rangoon voted.

Those 106,089 voters placed 115 people in seats at the central, district and township levels of the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), a municipal governing body that manages water distribution, waste management, road construction and other services. The YCDC has never been fully elected, instead being steered by government-appointed officials. Saturday’s vote created 115 seats for leaders chosen by the people, but reserved an appointed majority presence of YCDC’s ultimate authority, the Central Committee.

The Central Committee has nine members, including the mayor, four of whom are newly elected. One of the winners, Aye Min of Rangoon’s southern district, acknowledged shortly after his victory that while he will try to “do my best,” the committee’s non-elected bloc “will make the decisions.”

Aye Min, a 53-year-old doctor, was among the four big winners, and the only one of them who is not known as a distinguished businessman. Even they—the handful of men who benefitted from their privileged status of facial familiarity and financial resource—admitted that the system is flawed. Khin Maung Tint, a cement company owner who will soon serve as the Central Committee’s representative for Rangoon’s northern district, said that although the polls ultimately favored him, campaign guidelines were not up to code.

“We didn’t have enough time to raise public awareness about election,” he told The Irrawaddy, when pressed on how the elections played out. “The time was too short.”

‘They Put the Blame on Us’

The Irrawaddy canvassed much of the city on Saturday, speaking with voters, candidates, poll workers and township administrators. After visiting polling stations in four townships, our reporters were struck by one recurrent comment: “I don’t know.”

In every township, turnout was low. In every township, voters showed a general lack of awareness about the candidates. Many people voted for candidates they nothing about, while others simply abstained because they didn’t know how to decide. Not only did most people know nothing about the candidates, many were completely unaware of the complex procedures of getting their vote counted: step one, determine your eligibility and register one name per household; step two, show up at a polling station that may or may not have been arbitrarily relocated without notice; step three, wind through a labyrinthine polling place to cast seven ballots for three new kinds of representatives.

Eyebrows were raised when the YCDC Election Commission introduced campaign regulations that limited voter eligibility, excluded candidates with criminal records, cropped campaign periods and banned the use of flyers and posters picturing candidates. The effects of the regulations, however, were not fully felt until after the polls were over.

Soe Thaung thought he was an eligible voter in Sanchaung Township, but when he arrived at his polling place in the Shan Lann Buddhist Function Hall he didn’t see his name on the dozen-or-so A-1 printouts taped to a board outside. When he asked the site administrators why his name wasn’t there, they told him he had missed his chance.

“We declared [that residents should check our voter lists] with a loudspeaker in the ward,” said administrator Aung Lwin, which explained that voters had a five day window in which to register. On Saturday, he said, many people turned up at the polling station claiming that they didn’t hear the announcement, “and now they are complaining because their names are not included.”

Soe Thaung was not allowed to cast his vote on Saturday, even though he has been a homeowner in the ward for five years and is the head of a registered household. “They put the blame on us, saying that we didn’t check ahead. I didn’t even notice their announcement, or when they made the voting list,” he said.

Low voter turnout is a strong testament to claims that the voter registration process was problematic, but those who did vote revealed even more kinks. Yin Than, a 72-year-old former civil servant, arrived at a polling station in Insein Township at midday with a friend on each arm to help her walk. As the only available member of her household (her children were out of town), she said she came to vote “as a duty” despite not knowing who the candidates were.

“I just looked at their photos [on the ballot] and voted for who I think is a good person. I did not know any of them,” said Yin Than.

Winners and Losers

Win Cho is known not for owning one of Rangoon’s highest buildings—as one of Saturday’s winners is—but for his political activism. He has been jailed several times on charges of unlawful assembly and incitement for participating in public demonstrations over issues such as land rights and utilities prices. When he applied for candidacy as a Central Committee member, the YCDC quickly struck him down.

The YCDC election rules prohibit convicted criminals from seeking office, and the Election Commission argued that Win Cho had misrepresented himself by not disclosing his time in jail, during which he was considered a political prisoner. The commission eventually allowed him to run, but other candidates had a head start on campaigning.

Win Cho was up early on Saturday at a Dagon Township polling station, waiting with pride to cast a vote for himself. Although his name appeared on the voters list, he was denied a vote because of his “criminal record,” an issue that he thought was no longer relevant, considering that he was allowed to run for office. While his wife was ultimately able to cast a vote in his favor, it wasn’t enough to secure him a win.

“Since the beginning, when [the YCDC] issued the rules, it hasn’t been fair,” Win Cho said. “We all knew it, but we vowed to run because we thought that we may be able to see what was wrong, complain about it and get them to take action when the rules were violated.”

He wasn’t alone in his opinion that the election’s restrictive policies were being unfairly enforced. Susanna Hla Hla Soe, another well known activist and unsuccessful candidate for a Central Committee post, remarked that while the pair of them were subject to particular scrutiny, other candidates proved the campaign rules to be more flexible.

After the polls closed, Susanna Hla Hla Soe joined Win Cho and Aye Min—who won a seat representing the southern district—at a press conference on Sunday to alert the media of irregularities in the election. One of their concerns was that authorities had “turned a blind eye” to certain candidates who broke the rules by plastering city buildings with their image and handing out campaign materials near polling sites on the day of the election.

“When we reported violations to the township administrators, they just blamed the YCDC, and vice versa,” she said.

Win Cho had a similar experience in his ward, where he found that other candidates had acted against a Dec. 16 order to remove campaign posters out of concern that they might “make the city look bad.”

“I still found them in the downtown area,” said Win Cho, “but the commission failed to take action. Is it nepotism? If so, this will be very bad for 2015.”

Reporting by Lawi Weng, San Yamin Aung and Kyaw Phyo Tha.