Guest Column

Ethnic Voters Face Disenfranchisement in Myanmar's 2020 Election

By Ashley South 29 January 2020

There are about 3 million migrant workers from Myanmar in Thailand, with perhaps an additional million dependent family members. Some 2 million of these people are officially registered with the Thai authorities. A large proportion are from ethnic nationality communities, such as the Mon, Karen, Karenni and Shan, who have suffered disproportionately from decades of conflict and violence in Myanmar. In many cases, they fled to neighboring Thailand in desperation, because their livelihoods and basic security were threatened at home.

In the 2015 elections, only 20,000 overseas Myanmar citizens voted—of whom 19,000 were living in Singapore; only 600 people voted in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, where there is a Myanmar consulate. Myanmar overseas workers were effectively disenfranchised. In 2015 this fact was little noted, amid the euphoria of a National League for Democracy (NLD) win after decades of military rule in Myanmar.

In the interests of equity, and to ensure that the 2020 election results are deemed credible by minority communities, it is crucial that the forthcoming polls are seen to be free and fair.

Therefore, the Union Election Commission (UEC) should establish procedures for overseas-based Myanmar citizens to vote. At a minimum, arrangements should be made for them to vote at Myanmar embassies abroad. In order that the elections are seen as just and inclusive, such an initiative should be broader and permit migrant workers to vote in or near their place of work, as it is expensive and potentially illegal and risky for migrant workers in Thailand (for example) to travel to Bangkok, if they are not based there.

If these measures are not put in place, millions of people will be disenfranchised, with significant impacts on the election results. This is particularly problematic as so many migrant workers are from ethnic minorities, who may vote for parties other than the ruling NLD.

The problem is made worse by recent regulations allowing internal migrants within Myanmar to vote, if they have been resident in their new location for three months or more. Ethnic nationality/minority political parties worry that large numbers of ethnic Bamar migrants have moved to parts of the country where they have not traditionally lived, with a risk that large numbers of new arrivals will overwhelm the local population, distorting the election outcome in places where many of the original residents are outside the country because they cannot survive in their homeland. Although this may not have been the authorities’ intention, such distortions in voting arrangements could drive conflict between communities. Much better would be to ensure that these migrant workers too can vote in their original constituencies.

Ethnic nationality political parties should be congratulated for trying to represent their communities within the legal political system, despite the many flaws and problems with the 2008 Constitution. Recent amalgamations of Mon, Karen, Karenni, Kachin and Chin parties should give them a better chance of taking part competitively in the 2020 polls. Although the election will likely be won by the NLD, probably with a slightly reduced majority, ethnic parties could hold the balance of power in a number of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions.

In the 2015 election, voting was restricted in a number of constituencies (or parts thereof) because the military and UEC deemed the situation to be too insecure. Such restrictions on voting further undermined ethnic political parties’ prospects of success, as the areas in question were almost exclusively ethnic nationality-populated. In the 2020 elections, the focus will be less on transition from military rule in Myanmar, with more focus on the quality of democracy in the country.

This year’s elections will be particularly interesting and important because a large number of ethnic nationality citizens last time voted for the NLD, not so much out of love for the party, but because this seemed the best way to get the reviled military out of power. If they are allowed to vote in the first place, a potentially large proportion of this electorate may switch their vote in 2020, to support ethnic parties. This is particularly likely in communities where previously fragmented political parties have managed to unify.

However, without reforms to allow overseas workers to vote, the elections will lack credibility and legitimacy. If unfair election procedures alienate some ethnic nationality citizens, they may reject electoral democracy. The UEC faces significant political and logistical challenges in putting such procedures in place before the polls, likely to be held in November this year. Failure to do so effectively will jeopardize the credibility of the elections for large numbers of Myanmar’s citizens.

Dr Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, and a research fellow at Chiang Mai University.

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