Guest Column

Burma’s Voter Roster Rollout Falls Flat

By Saw Nyi Nyi 15 June 2015

The talk of election circles in Rangoon is whether the proposed polls in November will be “free and fair.” A great deal of investment has already been made by many, be it in time or money, to ensure that the Union Election Commission (UEC) is able to provide a reasonably acceptable outcome that will see Burma take another step toward more democratic governance.

But hold on! Is this just an illusion, or wishful thinking? Given the way things are shaping up, there is cause for skepticism. In recent weeks, the controversy du jour has involved the voter lists, a critical component to credible elections that has been in the news of late for all the wrong reasons. A pity, really, but it appears that all the talk of enlisting international expertise, using the latest technology to modernize the registration system and make it easy for voters to enumerate themselves is turning out to be little more than hype and specious claims.

To support the electoral process, an estimated US$30 million or more has been earmarked by donors, primarily US, British, Australian and EU aid, with additional support from Norway and other countries. The money has been channeled through international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) that are supporting the election commission and civil society groups to strengthen the transparency and effectiveness of the electoral process in Myanmar.

Let us not forget that much more funding support has also been provided in other forms through various aid granting mechanisms, with the election commission a direct or indirect beneficiary. UEC chairman Tin Aye has said taxpayers will foot the bill for about 40 billion kyats ($36.4 million) in election-related funding from the Union budget.

But now the obvious question to ask is, why has a two-year effort to “clean” the voter lists resulted in the roster being, as the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) contends, up to 80 percent inaccurate? With just six months until the election, this administrative failure is deeply troubling.

The election commission and its technical advisors have been dismissive about the concerns raised by Burma’s leading opposition party and civil society groups. The UEC argues that the lists on display are only preliminary and that errors and inconsistencies can happen during the process of data entry, which is a rather flimsy and irresponsible excuse, to say the least.

When possibly 80 percent of voter lists are inaccurate in townships within urban constituencies such as Rangoon and Naypyidaw after two long years of experimenting, it is perhaps anyone’s guess as to how the process will unfold outside country’s cities. In Burma’s rural, remote and far-flung locales, voter awareness is extremely low, and the process of compiling the lists—and correcting errors on the rosters—remains an enigma for many voters and even some election officials.

Recent travels around the countryside brought to the fore a very gloomy picture of people with little knowledge or interest in the election. And it was not just townships in Kachin, Chin and Karen states; even in constituencies on the outskirts of Rangoon, voter education has been sorely lacking.

The question to ask, perhaps, is where has all the millions of dollars earmarked for voter education gone? The UEC-donor-INGO triumvirate must be made to answer.

Or is it that the money has been spent, but the efforts have not borne fruit? Which calls to mind something Kyaw Lwin, a teashop owner on Pansodan Road, recently told me after the voter registration fiasco was reported: “How will we ever get to see the fruits when all the water is being sprayed on the branches and not at the roots?” he asked.

The UEC and its advisors will surely have to hang their heads in shame if they are not able to provide clean voter lists by the time Election Day rolls around, and preferably at least a month before that date. After all, registering voters and cleaning up the list is not rocket science; it requires the correct and effective application of resources.

A pilot project in three diverse townships last year should perhaps have served as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, with a report of the outcome citing many of the issues that have cropped up in recent weeks, albeit seemingly to a less severe degree.

Despite two years of preparations, and claims of extensive voter education and registration monitoring trainings provided to civil society organizations (CSOs), we are faced with a situation where, with six months to go until the election, the climb is getting steeper by the day.

One of the CSOs tasked with observing the voter registration process, the Peoples’ Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), had recommended to the UEC “to guide its election officials on what to do if data on date of birth, parent’s name and NRC [National Registration Card] number do not match.” From what has been heard during the recent voter list displays in Rangoon townships, many election officials “were clueless” when voters pointed out these discrepancies.

If the voter registration process, which has snowballed into a major concern, is anything to go by, it would be fair to say that the election commission needs to come up with a better explanation, or accept that something is fundamentally wrong with its trainings and voter education initiatives.

According to the UEC, a “nationwide voter list display” after the election date is announced will serve as a “double verification process,” ensuring the rosters are ready for prime time. But this plan will fall flat, and the UEC will have egg on its face, if voters go to the polling stations on Election Day only to find their names missing or incorrectly enumerated, rendering them incapable of voting. Would the UEC and its team of advisors then offer a perfunctory apology and promise that “this won’t happen again,” as was said by one Arakan State election official after the 2010 elections?

Let’s hope not, because if so, it’ll be five long years before they have a chance to honor their word.

Saw Nyi Nyi is a researcher and commentator on political and election-related affairs in Southeast Asia.