Guest Column

How Should Myanmar Citizens Vote This November?

By Bo Kyi 17 August 2020

The election this November is an opportunity for many to cast their votes. Unfortunately it is a right many still do not have the ability to exercise. I have listened to the voices of those who have become disillusioned with the upcoming election and I understand these concerns.

We are faced with the stiflingly undemocratic 2008 Constitution, and impunity for those committing human rights violations in the conflict zones and against student and labor activists.

It is one’s right to choose to vote or not; this is the democratic system, but I believe to my core that the most important avenue for change is to participate in the process.

In an electoral system like ours the most powerful voices are those who organize and vote. We have seen time and time again, at home and abroad, that mass human rights violations can occur under democratic systems, in which elections are the main focus with few avenues by which power holders can be held to account.

This is a critical juncture for Burma. We must voice our demands to politicians that in their incoming manifestos they unequivocally support free speech, expression and assembly. We should not have to risk imprisonment for expressing opinions or organizing meetings.

Categorical support for human rights

Nelson Mandela’s perseverance and vision gave me great inspiration when I was imprisoned as a political prisoner. It is necessary to return to Mandela’s ideals if we are to flourish as a free and prosperous democratic society. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

We should vote for candidates who advocate for non-discrimination and have the political will to protect human rights at all times and for all.

When casting one’s ballot, one has to identify a candidate and a party that represents the interests and ideals one wishes to see in Myanmar.

We should not be swayed by policies that instigate violence and human rights violations.

Our country deserves so much better after experiencing decades of harsh authoritarian rule. Yet, human rights violations continue on a daily basis in ethnic states. The civil war directly affects our democratic transition and politicians need to understand this and commit not just in words but deeds to the pursuit of a just peace.

Human rights violations in the conflict zones range from torture and kidnappings to rape and murder. Civilians are caught in the crossfire or deliberately targeted, displaced and more.

In other places free from armed conflict, people still experience arrest, detentions, and abuse for exercising their right to free speech, expression and assembly.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners conducts human rights training across the country, and workshops with parliamentarians to spread awareness of these themes, but the most powerful voice for systemic change is you, the voter.

While the 2008 Constitution is a serious challenge to the democratic transition and human rights, it does not prevent elected members of Parliament from passing legislation that can protect fundamental rights.

There is an array of recently introduced laws that must be repealed by our elected officials.

At present, 139 individuals are facing trial under Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, and seven individuals are currently serving sentences. Under the 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (PAPPL), 77 individuals are being persecuted, two are serving sentences, three are awaiting trial inside prison, and 72 are awaiting trial outside prison.

Across the country, hundreds of farmers have been criminalized under the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Law, which was amended in 2018, and many have been jailed.

We should vote for candidates who respect the human rights of society’s most vulnerable communities.

International norms

For these and other reasons Myanmar has regressed to being the international pariah it was during the dictatorship.

How our political system values human rights has a direct effect on international support, which in turn impacts our economy, and it is always the poorest communities who suffer.

A step in the right direction would be to release all 507 political prisoners prior to the election, and an acknowledgment of the wrongs committed by processing political prisoners as criminals.

We should vote for candidates who understand and adhere to international human rights norms, and not factionalism and exclusion.

Myanmar must also sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) to bring the country into line with norms.

The trauma of torture and violence by political prisoners and victims of the civil war is a legacy families, friends and whole communities have had to deal with.

Reparations, or even acknowledgement of the crimes committed in the past affect how we process violations in the present.

There are thousands of former political prisoners across the country who lack systemic support. AAPP’s mental health program is assisting those experiencing trauma and mental illness and tackling the society-wide stigma.

But we need the next elected government to define and delineate what political prisoners are, and to offer rehabilitation to help them live fulfilling lives.

COVID-19

During the COVID-19 lockdown, AAPP’s monitoring of cases related to the pandemic has found a reliance on arbitrary detentions. AAPP also learned of the high prevalence of suicides due to the economic and mental stress of the lockdown period.

The stigma around mental health must be challenged in Myanmar, as should the causes of economic stress. Burma should develop a contemporary understanding of the human right to a healthy mental wellbeing and freedom from anxiety about financial destitution.

COVID-19 is a unique challenge, and it is going to impact the worst off the hardest.

Our economic policies should be systematic, and not casual; the focus should be equality, not charity. Myanmar’s developmental model should be focused on its benefits to you, the people, not the cronies and business elite.

Rising inequality is not an inevitable consequence of development, but a result of choices made by politicians.  To ensure that all people enjoy the benefits of economic growth, social safety nets should be on the agenda of all candidates.

Ultimately, we should vote for candidates who respect the trust we have placed in them, and categorically support human rights for all. Political parties should bear this in mind when drafting their manifestos.

Bo Kyi is a former political prisoner and currently works as joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

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