Guest Column

So Far, Signs Point to Improved Supervision of Myanmar’s Election by UEC

By Paul Sarno 2 October 2020

This November, Myanmar is expected to conduct its second free and fair general parliamentary election after its military government ended an almost 50-year reign in 2010. The election that year must be excluded from such categorization because the largest vote-getting opposition political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and many ethnic parties chose not to participate and the military proxies largely controlled the campaigning and vote-counting.

As in the two recent elections, the nationwide Union Election Commission (UEC) and its regional and district sub-commissions oversee the entire process under a Constitution and series of statutes. These were promulgated by the former military regime and the first government, initially its proxy, which served from 2010 to 2015. But, for the present election, the NLD appointed the present UEC in 2016 after it swept to power in the first such free and fair election. Its 15 members are Bamar and Buddhist (save one), male and most are in their 70s and 80s.

There are indications that this 2020 election will be managed by the UEC in a more equitable manner than the one in 2015. By this, I do not imply that it will meet all the fine-point standards of a poll in a Western democracy. However, given the constraints of still quite diminished infrastructure, very low per-capita GNP, reduced bureaucratic capacity (if not emasculation) over the past more than half-century, war and a lack of effective central government sovereignty in outlying portions of the country, the nation’s size (more than 35 million potential voters), COVID-19 and the always looming possibility of a military coup, the UEC appears ready to implement delivery of a fair result to the electorate.

First, the 93 national and regional parties nominated 7,026 candidates this year; 837 (13.5 percent) more than in 2015 for the same 1,171 seats in the bicameral national and 14 unicameral regional parliaments. However unwieldy and slightly bizarre this appears; it demonstrates some faith in democracy and the hope for peaceful change. Second, the UEC is responsible to vet those nominees under constitutional and statutory guidelines. There is no appeal to the judiciary as under Western democratic standards. In 2015, the UEC appointed by the military-substitute party rejected approximately 99 proposed candidates (a disproportionate number were Muslim). The current UEC rejected only 31 (.004 percent of the nominees). Twenty-six others withdrew their candidacy; an indication that they did not qualify for the office sought.

The major reason for the rejections was the constitutional and statutory requirement that a citizen-candidate must have resided in Myanmar for at least 10 consecutive years before the election and be born of parents who were both citizens at the time of his or her birth. The UEC has no discretion in this area. Several of the rejected Rohingya candidates from a Rakhine State-based party complained that they had been approved in 2015 and voted in that election. This might imply that the UEC and its various district and state components are infected with an anti-Muslim bias. But, a number of Muslim candidates passed the commission with no problem; e.g., six in Rakhine, 15 in Yangon Region and at least one in Mandalay Region. Some of them were proposed by lesser political parties. The fact that a prior UEC may have made an error and failed to follow the applicable law does not compel this commission to repeat such.

A second indication that this UEC is outperforming its 2015 counterpart is that one regional commission reversed its local body and reinstated a minor party candidate. His father’s name had been mistakenly entered on the candidacy application. That precipitated a disqualifying residency issue.

However, all is not sanguine. The national UEC appears to have yielded to military pressure when disqualifying a sitting ethnic Rakhine legislator in the state parliament seeking reelection in a potentially competitive contest with an NLD candidate. The substantive reason given was that his son, then a major in the Myanmar army, had defected in May 2020 to the rebel Buddhist Arakan Army (AA), which the NLD government has designated a terrorist organization. The legislator asserted that he had not been in contact with his son for many months.  No proof was offered that the candidate was a member of an organization prohibited under the Region/State Hluttaw Election Law, such as the AA, and none of his electoral opponents objected.  The local commission admitted that the Home Affairs Ministry, under the control of the military, insisted the legislator be disqualified, thus allegedly tying the commission’s hands. It appears his appeal to the national commission was denied on very flimsy procedural grounds. The law does not permit his party to nominate a replacement.

Third, the Myanmar legislature, at the request of the UEC, has decreed that the military, including its adult dependents living on the bases, are to vote at civilian polling places. The UEC has enforced that legislative directive in virtually all cases (some bases are in isolated and/or hostile areas where it is unsafe for even soldiers to vacate the bases to vote). This should avoid the military voting as a block (sometimes supervised by officers) where sacks of such ballots were delivered to civilian polling stations for counting, almost all in favor of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).  That party is led by retired army officers and very often advocates military-espoused political positions.

Fourth, in 2015, the USDP-appointed UEC made very few attempts to correct the vast number of inaccuracies in the lists of potential voters. It was extremely difficult to vote if your name was not on those rolls. There were reports of numerous citizens being deprived of their right to vote as a result. Due mostly to a combination of underfunding, inadequate computer expertise and non-cooperation by the populace (often peripatetic) in the compilation of residency data over a 48-year dictatorship, the initial lists for this election contain numerous errors. But, at least the UEC has established a reasonable schedule for the populace to inspect the proposed lists, submit suggested changes, resolve the issues if possible and peruse revised lists sufficiently before the election in order to permit final appeals to it. A subsidiary issue of period of required residence before the election has been resolved in favor of the UEC’s proposal so that those working for more than 90 days outside the family residence may vote where they work. Furthermore, the commission is writing rules to allow those numerous people displaced by persistent war to prove citizenship and to vote in places in which they are then living.

Fifth, it is important that the election be held (as freely and fairly as possible) in order to avoid the chaos of a lapsed parliament with no replacement and to keep advancing the momentum toward full democracy. Twenty-four opposition parties sought a delay, as there has been a profusion of COVID-19 infections. The UEC rejected the application but restricted inter-personal campaigning significantly. Debates on the media have replaced such. It also increased the polling places by 10,000 to 50,000 and decreased the number of potential voters at each location to minimize the long lines observed during the 2015 election. These decisions are consonant with a wise stewardship in tenuous times.

While hardly unbiased, most of this UEC’s determinations demonstrate a more comprehensive and equitable oversight of the pending poll than its predecessors. Unfortunately, given the intractable problems of conducting an election in Myanmar, there will be complaints, many of them substantive; some of which are systemic and beyond the Commission’s remit.

Paul Sarno is an independent Myanmar scholar and author, a retired member of the New York Bar, and an officer of the Burma Studies Foundation. The views presented are his own.

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