The Union Election Commission (UEC) has declared 102 villages in Karen State to be too dangerous for polling to take place, which will prevent nearly 10,000 citizens in Burma from voting during the 8 November, 2015 General Elections. The announcement comes amid a number of similar voting cancellations and interference during the last few months.
In early August 2015 for instance, it was announced that polling would be cancelled across Wa and Mong La regions, again citing security reasons as a primary factor in the decision. In a similar move, the Karen State election sub-commission decided to revoke the voting rights of 20,000 people, mainly ethnic Mon, based on the apparent obstruction by “insurgent groups” during the voter verification process.
The decision of the election administration to cancel voting in various regions has become a highly politicized issue in the lead up to the 2015 elections. In June 2015, a number of ethnic political parties expressed their concern that voting cancellations would be issued strategically in regions in which pro-government parties were unlikely to win votes. A report from the Transnational Institute echoed this sentiment, listing voting cancellations as one of the reasons why ethnic political parties will struggle to achieve meaningful representation in the aftermath of the 2015 elections.
Already, election observers are drawing parallels to the 2010 election, in which the UEC cancelled voting in more than 3,400 villages in Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan States (including 4 townships in the Wa Special Region) resulting in a voter turnout as low as 30% in parts of the country.
The earlier decision to cancel the White Card, which strips the voting rights of mainly Rohingya Muslims, along with the lack of any clearly defined voting procedure for 2-3 million migrant workers in Thailand and over 100,000 in China means that it is likely that a significant portion of Burma’s population will become disenfranchised during the 2015 elections. Charles Santiago, Chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, voiced concern regarding this disenfranchisement, stating, “All counted, we could see up to 10 million people—around 20 percent of Myanmar’s total population—unable to take part in these elections, and that could cast serious doubts over the legitimacy of the vote.”
Zakhung Ting Ying, a sitting Parliamentarian from Kachin State and leader of the Burma Army-controlled New Democratic Army-Kachin, recently demanded that the National League for Democracy halt all campaigning in three regions within his constituency.
Disturbingly, a dispatch from the Human Rights Watch has linked this cancellation to intimidation from various militias politically aligned with the Burma Army. HRW explains that, “Militias are privileging their own electoral interests over the voting rights of rural people, especially ethnic minorities, and as proxies, serving to perpetuate the power of the military and the continued repression and rights abuses that come with it.”
Conflicts involving the Burma Army against ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) such as the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) may potentially result in additional voter cancellations. After intensified fighting with the Burma Army, on 16 September 2015, the RCSS urged for an end to political campaigning in the region. Campaigning will begin again only if the RCSS and the Burma Army can reach and enforce a ceasefire agreement.
Due to the ongoing state of violence in Burma’s numerous conflict regions, there will be legitimate concerns for voting cancellation in a number of cases in the lead up to the 2015 elections. The decision to cancel voting in certain regions of Burma should therefore be undertaken in a manner that is both transparent and accountable, involving impartial observers and consultation with ethnic political parties, ethnic armed organizations, and local civil society organizations. However, as noted in a report from the Carter Center, the UEC has demonstrated a significant lack of transparency in this process, prompting concern that fears of electoral manipulation are well founded. For the 2015 elections, the UEC must end the continued disenfranchisement of Burma’s voters and prove that it is capable of acting in a manner that is both “free and fair”.