By Thin Lei Win/Myanmar Now
The details of that morning 25 years ago are hazy but Than Than Aye remembers vividly the palpable excitement as an 18-year-old voting in her first election.
She does not remember who she voted for in the 1990 elections – possibly Aung San Suu Kyi’s party – but recalls putting the voting slip in the ballot box in a small town in Mon state in eastern Burma.
“I’m so eager to vote,” said Than Than Aye, who has been working in Thailand for close to 20 years, of the upcoming elections on 8 November.
“Of course I would vote for Daw Suu. If the leader is good, the country will become better. And if the country prospers, we will too,” she added, laughing.
Yet on 17 October, when Burmese nationals living in neighbouring Thailand cast advance ballots for the elections, Than Than Aye will not be in the queue. Neither will hundreds of thousands of her compatriots.
Around 3,000 voters have registered for advance voting at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, Win Maung, Burma’s ambassador to Thailand, told Myanmar Now in a telephone interview. That is just a tiny fraction of the estimated 2.5 to 3 million Burmese workers toiling away in Thailand.
The low figures are a result of many factors – a lack of awareness and information about voter registration procedures, a lack of trust in government officials, busy work schedules and travel restrictions placed on migrant workers.
For the activists and workers, however, this is an example of Burma’s state machinery working in favour of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) by making it difficult for ordinary people – whose political persuasions may favour the opposition – to vote.
“(The government) knows that if we are allowed to vote, we would vote for the NLD,” Moe Set Aye, a migrant worker sitting next to Than Than Aye, said, referring to Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
SHUT OUT FROM VOTING
Burmese authorities, however, said they had announced the procedure to register for advance voting in good time and had tried their best to raise awareness.
“We announced it four months ago. In fact we were the first embassy to do so. Yes, we have the responsibility to help them to vote. But they also have the responsibility to follow the rules and laws on elections and voting,” Win Maung said.
Workers who originally said they were more interested in their work than elections have now changed their minds as polling day approaches and are calling the embassy for help, he said.
“We even extended the deadline for registering by one month … Now the deadline has passed and there’s nothing we can do,” he added.
According to Sai Kyaw Thu, director of the Union Election Commission, there are close to 35,000 voters who have registered to vote in 37 countries, based on information from 44 embassies.
There are an estimated half a million Burmese migrant workers living in Samut Sakhon alone, a province next to Bangkok, Sai Sai from the Burmese-run Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN), said.
Most are shut out from voting due to a government stipulation that says only “those outside the country with government permission” are eligible to vote, he said.
The workers now carry temporary passports but most, like himself, came to Thailand illegally, and therefore do not fall into the category of eligible voters, he added.
Ambassador Win Maung, however, said anyone who filled in the requisite form, available on the embassy website, had been submitted for approval.
Some migrant workers said they were unable to use the website and visited the embassy in person for copies, but were passed around from one official to another without ever getting their hands on the form.
An option for those not eligible to vote in Thailand is to go back home to vote. But this too raises challenges, not least the difficulty in getting permission from their employers for some time off.
“The elections and voting are a once in a lifetime opportunity for many migrant workers. They’re on Facebook and they read news on what’s going on so they are interested and want to vote, but they don’t know … how to do it,” Sai Sai from MWRN said.
“It’s difficult for them to vote in reality too. The factories won’t allow them to go home to vote because they employ thousands of Burmese migrant workers. They’d have to close,” he said.
There have been cases of employers sacking workers absent from work for three days in a row, he added.
Such rules make it impossible for people like Soe Soe Tun, a 33-year-old from Arakan State who works in a tyre factory in Mahachai, to return home and vote.
“If I could go back easily, I would. But it would take about 10 days to get back because I would have to go to Rangoon first and then to Arakan State on a bus,” he said.
The Burmese Embassy said it was ready to provide documents that would allow the workers to go home and vote.
Even with employer permission and a letter from embassy, however, workers must have their names on the voter list back in their towns and villages to be eligible to vote. Most migrant workers that Myanmar Now spoke to said they had not checked the voter list.
Sai Sai said the migrant workers are aware of what they are missing out on.
“We know that if there are 99 votes each for the candidates, my vote can make it 100 for one candidate. We’ve thought of the possibility that our votes could bring the change,” he said.