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On a recent hot afternoon on a bustling street in Hlaing Tharyar Township, residents and stall keepers were shading themselves from the blistering sun, but a group of youth activists clad in blue T-shirts were undeterred in their efforts to motivate would-be voters.
“Soon there will be elections that could change our future. You have the freedom to vote for your preferred candidates, but you will only be able to do so if your name is on the voter list,” a member of the Independent Youth For Change announced through a handheld speaker to passers-by. “We urge you to check the voter list.”
Hlaing Tharyar Township, a sprawling mix of shanty towns and industrial estates on Rangoon’s northern outskirts, has emerged as one of the main areas in the city affected by widespread voter registration problems. The issue could leave tens of thousands of people in the township – and many more nationwide – without the opportunity to vote in Burma’s landmark polls on 8 November.
Concerned activists and opposition party candidates are trying to mobilise voters in the area to make sure their names are correctly registered on voter lists. But the time left to do this is fast running out, the procedures involved complicated, and public interest in the election preparations is low.
“I’m really worried they may not be able to vote despite their eligibility,” Than Myint, a Lower House candidate for the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Hlaing Tharyar Township, told Myanmar Now.
Criticism over errors on voters list have filled Burma’s social and mainstream media, with complaints ranging from incorrect birth dates, names and national registration numbers to the inclusion of deceased people and the omission of eligible voters.
The Union Election Commission (UEC) has blamed errors on software problems and said it is the responsibility of voters to ensure their names and details have been correctly listed.
But Aye Boh, an Upper House candidate for the opposition NLD, said he believed inaccuracies in the voter list were more than simple errors.
“I think the [UEC] did it so people would be frustrated and disappointed,” he said in a phone interview, declining to discuss the motivations of the electoral commission.
In Hlaing Tharyar, residents viewed the problems with a mix of concern and resignation, the latter a result of a deep distrust of the government and political process after decades of military rule.
Moe Moe Mying, a customer in a grocery shop, was cynical when asked about registering for the general election, saying the lists had already been manipulated and even bulked out with the names of people who had died. “The dead are on the list but the living are excluded. No point in checking,” she said.
Some residents who attempted to correct the lists said their complaints had not been properly addressed by local election commission officials.
Aung Thein Myint, whose family has lived in the area for years, said he checked the voter list when it was released in April and found that his adult daughter’s name was missing. He filled in a form to correct it, only to discover to his astonishment that in the updated voter list all his family members had disappeared, and another family was registered at his home address.
“I’m going to lodge a complaint if this doesn’t change,” he said, adding, “I voted in the 1990 and 2010 elections, I just showed my identity card. This time, the process is so complicated.”
The UEC has said it is up to voters to check the accuracy of the lists. Its chairman, Tin Aye, stated on 12 September he could only guarantee a 30 percent accuracy rate for nationwide voter lists as the public had failed to actively verify their names on voter lists.
The deadline to file an application for voter list changes closed on 27 September. Migrant workers, however, could apply for voter registration until 10 October, according to the UEC.
The People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), a coalition of local NGOs observing the election preparations and the polls, said in a statement on 21 September that it was concerned over low levels of voter participation and awareness raising on the issue.
“In centres observed, PACE saw low levels of voter turnout and low levels of voters making changes or additions to the list.”
Saung Kha, a youth activist and poet, said he joined the Independent Youth For Change campaign as the public needed to be stirred into action to register and turn out to vote on 8 November.
“People have experience with elections in the past, but they have lost trust because previous elections did not lead to genuine change,” he told Myanmar Now.
Internal migrants face registration hurdles
In Hlaing Tharyar, according recurrent reports in local media, voter list inaccuracies are widespread, despite two rounds of updating of the lists by the local election sub-commission.
This is because many in Hlaing Tharyar are migrants from the countryside or residents of illegal slums who often lack household registration certificates used to compile the voter lists.
The UEC has said migrants who are not on the list can apply for voter registration until 10 October by submitting an application form called 3A. This requires applicants to obtain a letter of reference from their ward official and to prove they lived in the area for more than 180 days. Otherwise, they have to return to their former constituency to vote.
Voters and opposition candidates in Hlaing Tharyar said the registration options are unclear and cumbersome, and local officials were not always cooperative.
Thinkhar Kyaw, a Hlaing Tharyar Lower House candidate for the Rakhine National Development Party, estimated there were some 80,000 migrant workers from Arakan State employed at local factories who should be eligible to vote, but as few as 10 percent were correctly registered.
“I’m trying to motivate them to fill in the 3A form. Now they are trying to register,” he said, adding that it was often difficult for migrants to prove to local officials that they had lived in the area for at least six months.
North Rangoon District election sub-commission chairman Aung Khine told Myanmar Now that an estimated 500,000 voters had been properly registered to vote in Hlaing Tharyar Township by late September.
He said he was unaware of how many more potential voters were still missing from the lists. He refused to acknowledge that voter registration problems were widespread and said migrants left off the list still had time to submit the 3A form.
He said the behaviour of some illegal squatters in Hlaing Tharyar had hindered the registration process: “It’s very hard to register them because they are not interested in the elections and beat the officials who come to register them.”
PACE spokesman Sai Ye Kyawswar Myint said the UEC had shown little initiative in addressing the problems that migrants or squatters face in registering for the 8 November polls.
“We haven’t seen any solutions from the UEC regarding this problem. The UEC always said these illegal residents have a place to vote in their native [constituency]; the UEC doesn’t work on this case with any special policy,” he said.
Saung Kha said his organisation was campaigning in Hlaing Tharyar, Shwepyithar, Hmawbi and Dala townships, all poor neighbourhoods on Rangoon’s outskirts, in order to encourage the large migrant populations to register to vote.
The campaign, he said, is funded by online donations and with financial support from friends, some of which was used to print 12,000 stickers that read: “Choose your own future by voting in the elections!”
Saung Kha said, “We are doing this because we don’t have trust in the UEC. If people have knowledge of the voting process, it’s tough for the electoral body to lie to us.”
This article was republished with permission from Myanmar Now.