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Five weeks ago, Burma held historic elections, the first openly-contested polls the country has seen in a quarter of a century.
The result was a landslide victory for the hugely popular opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, putting the party in a comfortable position to form a government.
The election was deemed to be largely free and fair by both international and local election observers, despite earlier misgivings over inaccuracies in the voter lists and the neutrality of the Union Election Commission, many of whose members were former generals.
People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) was the largest of all local election observers, with volunteers across 1,000 polling stations. Myanmar Now spoke to PACE’s executive director Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint about his reflections on the recent elections.
Question: Can you briefly describe how PACE started?
Answer: We started in 2013. The main reason was that after the 2012 by-elections, we realised there isn’t an organisation just dedicated to election issues. There was criticism of the 2010 elections both locally and internationally. But there wasn’t an opportunity to observe the elections systematically. So when the 2012 by-elections were drawing near, there was nobody who could systematically talk about the mistakes that were made in the 2010 elections.
Nobody was officially allowed to observe the 2010 elections, except for the candidates. In 2012, it was better but it still was not official. So we thought there needs to be a group that would observe the 2015 elections in a systematic manner.
Q: Are you satisfied with what you observed in the 2015 elections?
A: First off, both local civil society organisations and international groups were given official permission to observe the elections. That is very satisfying. I see that as an important move, a positive development. But this is not written down in the Elections Law. It was only released as a government order. It’s not in the law, so it (allowing election observers) needs to be included in the law.
However, there are a lot of things to be said about election-related information. For example, there was no official directive on when the elections should be held, which is a very important issue. Perhaps there should be a directive that it should be held, for example, three months before the end of the current government’s term.
Q: Millions of migrant workers were unable to vote on 8 November. What was the directive on overseas advance voting, and how is it conducted in other ASEAN countries?
A: Both the laws, as well as procedures need to change. Firstly, the Union Election Commission should announce the final voter list much earlier than it has done (this year). In my opinion, major changes are needed when it comes to compiling the voter list. We’re wondering whether the list should be drawn up much earlier. Then we will know where and how we can best deal with this earlier.
In countries like Indonesia, there is a separate election commission that oversees overseas advance voting. In our country too, I think we may need such a commission, even if it’s just a temporary commission and not a full-time one.
Q: How many people abroad do you think were unable to vote?
A: From what I understand, neither the Election Commission, civil society organisations, nor political parties have those figures. Everyone is giving estimates. We need to work on these issues in the future.
Q: To what extent did PACE manage to observe the elections nationwide?
A: Let me first explain about our methodology, which is called “simple base observation”. Out of all 40,000 polling stations we selected 440 that can represent the whole country. We did not go to the polling stations where we thought things would go well. We mostly looked at the polling stations located in remote areas. Because there is a greater chance of vote rigging in such faraway places.
We also observed the polling stations in conflict areas and politically significant areas, for example like Kawhmu (where Aung San Suu Kyi was re-elected as an MP) and other areas where government ministers and ex-military generals were running in.
Q: What are the shortcomings of 2015 elections? What preparations do you think should be made for the next round of elections?
A: We are compiling a report that will include our recommendations. One thing for sure is that we need to review the process of voters’ list registration for the sake of all-inclusiveness. Another thing is constructing polling stations that would help the disabled to participate in the elections. A further thing is to review the duties and obligations of the Election Commission.
Q: Are there any elections laws and rules that you think should be amended?
A: Before the elections, many people questioned the neutrality of the Election Commission. Many have pointed out that the Election Commission chairman is a former army general. This is an important point, but we must go beyond it and look at the legal process of having the president appoint the Election Commission chairman, because the term of the president and that of the commission chairman are the same. That’s weak from a legal point of view.
The next government may again appoint someone as commission chairman who will be loyal to it. According to the current rules, the commission chair would always be someone loyal to the government. We have to change this rule if we want to see a more neutral Election Commission.
Q: What is the difference between the current Election Commission and the one formed for the 1990 elections?
A: The commission in 1990 was formed by the then-ruling military regime, which was the State Law and Order Restoration Council. Since those picked for the commission at that time were quite respectable in the eyes of the public, there was no serious objection.
The question is how we should elect the people for the commission. The political parties may nominate five people for the commission who do not belong to their parties. The civil society groups and the country’s president may each nominate another five people for the commission. Then we may have a vote to choose someone as the commission chair from these 15 persons. We don’t have that system in place yet. The new commission will be appointed by the new government.
Q: How well did the current commission cooperate with civil society groups during the elections?
A: We got along with the commission officials at the top level, but the problem was with the institutional changes of the commission. For example, we wanted the list of polling stations and asked the commission to give it to us. But according to the commission rules, the Union Election Commission has no obligation to compile the list of polling stations. As long as a township level election commission office has the data of polling stations in those towns, it should be all right, according to the laws.
So it seemed legally fine for the Union Election Commission to say they don’t have the list of polling stations. But it would take us two weeks to ask the township commission offices for the data on the polling stations. So we need to change the whole framework of the Election Commission.