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As Burma prepares to hold its first elections in two decades, the world’s media has trained its fickle gaze on this military-ruled Southeast Asian nation. But, in neighbouring Thailand, most Burmese migrant workers have little interest in polls they believe will do nothing to improve life in their home country.
The Bangkok Post last week claimed more than 2,000 Burmese migrant workers were queuing at the national verification office in Tachilek opposite Mae Sai in Chiang Rai, Thailand, hoping to obtain a temporary passport. “These migrant workers are eager to get their passports so they can travel more freely back to cast a ballot and then return to work in Thailand,” an unnamed source told the Post.
But with estimates of the number of Burmese working in Thailand ranging up to three million, these people are just a tiny fraction of the migrant worker community. Most migrants are in Thailand illegally – and have no intention of risking the journey home to vote in an election widely dismissed as a sham aimed at keeping the military in power.
“I don’t believe in this election,” said Aung Aung, a 22-year-old hospitality worker in the Thai-Burma border town of Mae Sot. “Than Shwe wants to win. I think he will cheat. They’ve been cheating for 20 years up to today.”
Moe Swe, of Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association, said most Burmese in Mae Sot weren’t interested in the polls. “They know the election is not for them,” he said. “They won’t get any benefit… The Burmese people know the election is just about selecting Burmese generals.”
The vast majority of Burmese migrants come to Thailand for economic reasons, working in factories, construction and the fishing industry in the south. Moe Swe said he had talked to Burmese in Phuket and Phang Nga, many of whom had been in Thailand for several years and knew very little about the polls.
“They haven’t been given any information about the parties,” he said. And what they do know, they don’t like: “The NLD is not in the election; Aung San Suu Kyi is not in the election, so migrant workers are not interested. They will not return to Burma to vote,” he said.
In fact, according to advocacy body Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma, many migrant workers are unaware the elections are even taking place. The TACDB recently surveyed 200 people studying at a migrant worker school in Thailand. Of those that responded, just 15.7 percent knew that Burma was holding general elections on 7 November.
Myint Wai, deputy director of TACDB, said there were probably more than two million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand. Of these, less than 200,000 have obtained passports through the Thai-Burmese “nationality verification scheme”. Those with passports are supposed to be able to vote in advance of the polls at the Burmese embassy, but the government has done nothing to inform these people of how to do this, he said.
Jackie Pollock, of the Migrant Assistance Program based in Chiang Mai, said the mainly Shan migrants her organisation works with are also uninterested in the elections. With the polls cancelled in many parts of Shan State, workers felt like the election lacked credibility. “They feel there’s a lot of exclusion anyway. Other ethnic people aren’t allowed to vote, so they feel like it’s not an election that’s inclusive.”
The criticism came as New York-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch released a damning assessment of the election process, four days before the polls.
“Burma’s November 7 elections are being conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation, and resignation,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These elections are about elite military transformation, not democratic transition, and offer little change to Burma’s deplorable human rights situation.”
There were “growing reports of voting irregularities and inducements to vote for the military-backed parties,” HRW added. Foreign media are forbidden from entering the country to cover the elections, and election watchdogs have been barred from observing them.