At the end of a day’s training in a vast military compound in the suburbs of Rangoon, Cpl Khin Maung Than and three of his fellow comrades stepped out of a lush paddy field, their green uniforms coated with mud.
The soldiers had recently arrived in the city from different army regiments across Burma for a training course on agricultural techniques.
Asked how they were going to vote in the parliamentary elections on 8 November and if they felt they could make a free choice, none of them came up with a clear answer.
“We haven’t been told which party to vote for,” said Khin Maung Than, 52, who has served in the army for 35 years.
He said he had no idea whether he would be able to vote, because he had to leave his national identity card, needed on polling day, back with his regiment. “Maybe I will send the name of the party I want to vote for in a phone message to someone back in my mother regiment,” he said hopefully.
One of his fellow comrades said that the commander of his regiment would probably vote on his behalf. Another besides him grew angry at the questioning, saying he would “explode” if he discussed the topic – politics is taboo in Burma’s army, he explained.
Burma has about 400,000 soldiers, many of whom will be casting their ballots in the polling stations set up in military compounds.
Whether these soldiers will be able to freely participate in the elections remains an unanswered question for political parties and election observers.
The quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein came to power in 2011, ending 49 years of direct military rule.
But ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has several former generals in its top ranks , Thein Sein included, and is widely seen as the military’s proxy party. There is concern among other parties that the huge bloc of military voters will not be able to cast their ballots freely on November.
Some election candidates in whose constituencies the military bases exist said they are so sceptical about how the elections will be conducted in the military compounds that they have already discounted the soldiers’ votes.
“I regard the military votes as my minuses because I am suspicious about the voting situation there,” said former Lt. Col Kyaw Zeya, 59, one of very few former military retirees running in the elections for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
He said he joined the NLD because he had secretly admired Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero Aung San, for a long time and he believed that the dominance of the military in politics should be reduced.
According to the 2008 constitution, 25 percent of seats in parliament are reserved for military officers, and won’t be contested in the election.
ORDER TO VOTE
In Dagon Township in downtown Rangoon where Kyaw Zeya is running for a regional parliamentary seat, there are about 10,000 voters, but 3,000 of them are registered as military service personnel and some others are working in the military hospital.
But he can’t still make sense of the whereabouts of 1,000 of these 3,000 servicemen who are registered as living in residential quarters for army officers in his constituency, which has been empty since 2005 when the former dictator Than Shwe moved government offices to the remote capital Naypyidaw. He wonders whether these voters exist at all.
Moreover, the election commission has also added another 700 policemen recently recruited as an auxiliary special police force for the elections as voters in his constituency.
Since almost of half of all the voters in his constituency are security personnel, Kyaw Zeya does not expect their votes, saying that the military personnel will be voting not of their free will but according to order from their superiors.
“Even if I win, it will be a very close margin,” he said.
As someone who has served in the army for more than three decades before his retirement in 2013, he understands the culture of Burma’s army, the country’s biggest institution.
He said orders from above will play a decisive role in how the soldiers and their family members will vote in the November elections.
“If someone in charge tells the military personnel and their families that it is the order of the regiment commander to vote for the green, then everyone will have to vote for the green because that is order,” he said, referring to the USDP, which has a green flag and logo.
He added that those who don’t obey orders run the risk of losing out on opportunities or promotions in the future – as although their vote should be confidential, balloting in closed military compounds, where votes will be counted on site, is unlikely to be secret.
Sai Ye Kyaw Swar, the executive director of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, shares the concern that the counting of ballots at the same polling stations where they are cast can compromise confidentiality.
“In other countries, you carry the ballots of a polling station to somewhere else to keep secret who most of the voters in that area voted for. But we don’t have that system here yet. We will count the votes at the same polling stations where you vote. So the next government may bear a grudge against a village or an army unit,” he said.
It is not known whether the army leadership has issued specific orders to its servicemen regarding the elections, but it is sending some very clear signals.
In a speech to hundreds of military officers in Naypyidaw on 20 October, Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the top army chief, said that the military families are to choose candidates “who have an empathy for the army, are able to correctly guard the race and religion and who have no influence from foreign organisations and foreigners.”
Many quickly understood this as a plea to vote for the USDP, a party packed with former army officials, and a rejection of the opposition NLD party, whose leader Suu Kyi had a foreign spouse.
“We have no choice but to vote for the USDP,” said an army official from the Karen State who asked not to be identified for fear of a punishment.
“We cannot have a preference for a particular party. Under the current circumstances, we will have to vote for the USDP only.”
Saw Maung Toke, a candidate of Kayin [Karen] People’s Party, said that the army chief’s instruction undermines the individual freedom of military servicemen to vote in the elections.
Although he is running for a lower house seat in Hmawbi township, home to dozens of military regiments, he is not hopeful about winning the votes of soldiers.
“We have no power to do anything about it. We will have to accept what they do,” he said.
Tin Aye, the chairman of Union Elections Commission, said in a news conference that the commission will give the observers and media access to the polling stations inside the military compounds on election day.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the EU’s chief election observer in Burma, said that he was given assurances of access in a recent meeting with Min Aung Hlaing.
“He agreed that our European Union teams would have access to military installations to observe voting there, if there aren’t national security considerations that are so serious enough as not to allow that,” he said.