Pushed to the Margins

August 8th, 2020  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  8 minute read
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“There are impenetrable road-blocks for ethnic and religious minorities to exercise the right to vote and to register on the ballot as candidates under UEC rules and national law.”

As the 8 November, 2020 elections draw closer, concerns are mounting regarding the Union Election Commission’s (UEC) ability to administer free and fair elections, that are inclusive and gives equal opportunity for all peoples of voting age to participate in the elections process as candidates and voters. The current administration of elections is in serious jeopardy of disenfranchising ethnic and religious minority communities, particularly those affected by conflict, pushing them to the margins by failing to provide them with a platform and equal participation. The UEC is unable to make a determination as to whether voting will even go ahead in conflict affected regions, especially in Rakhine State, where no contingencies have been developed for polling stations to be made available for the approximately 200,000 displaced persons and those in internally displaced person (IDP) camps, who have fled 20 months of continuous and intensifying conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. The Arakan National Party MP Pe Than has called for ballot boxes outside IDP camps in Rakhine State, but the UEC has cited difficulties in achieving this. Yet, flying in the face of this assertion is the UEC’s announcement to create 632 polling stations outside military battalions to allow military personnel to cast their ballots.

A persistent problem plaguing the UEC has been their hapless collection of voter registration lists for all those eligible to vote, especially in conflict areas. In the United Wa State Army (UWSA) controlled autonomous area of Shan State, the UEC and UWSA have failed to coordinate and collect voter information for four townships where voting did not take place in either 2010 or 2015. Similarly, in Kachin State, the UEC claims that they are unable to reach around 70 village-tracts located in areas controlled by ethnic armed organizations, citing security reasons. According to the Rakhine State Election Subcommission, the determination on whether security concerns and conflict are too great a risk for voter safety is deferred to “security-related ministries or departments,” such as the military controlled Ministry of Home Affairs. The military-drafted 2008 Constitution requires the ministries of Home Affairs, Defense and Border Affairs to be headed by military personnel – giving the military effective control over the government and also the UEC, and by proxy, the overall decision on election safety. On whether elections will be held in Rakhine State for those caught in conflict, Rakhine State lawmaker Maung Hla Kyaw states that “If there is no one to represent a constituency, people will suffer more.” At the core of it, the UEC lacks independence to oversee the election and is unable to prevent outside forces from suppressing voters, thereby affecting the overall fairness of the election process, often to the detriment of ethnic communities and parties.

Another major challenge is the ability for ethnic parties to campaign amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Karen National Democratic Party has raised concerns about their inability to properly canvass voters and conduct in-person speaking events given the government’s social distancing guidelines, while the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party has been conducting their campaign unimpeded by these restrictions, in conjunction with their government activities. These concerns have not been addressed by the UEC, and will only be determined after all candidates have been verified on 17 August, letting campaigning opportunities slip by for other parties. In a panel discussion for the Under 30 Dialogue TV Series, Nay Win Naing of Yangon based democracy-focused civil society organization, The Fifth Pillar, stated that the UEC ought to have consulted all political parties on the COVID-19 matter in the build up to the elections and created special guidelines applicable across the board. Meanwhile, the internet blackout has prevented candidates and voters in Rakhine and Chin States from being able to engage in election preparations and activities. While some limited 2G internet service is now available, it is often unworkable and has severely hampered ethnic Rakhine political parties from conveying their message to the public.

There are impenetrable road-blocks for ethnic and religious minorities to exercise the right to vote and to register on the ballot as candidates under UEC rules and national law. The 1982 Citizenship Law prohibits muslim communities in general, and Rohingyas in particular, from obtaining citizenship, rendering them unable to vote or run for office. For voting-age Rohingya refugees inside Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, absentee voting may not be made available in spite of early calls from the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights to the UEC. The 2015 election saw not a single Rohingya or Muslim candidate running for Hluttaw but two prominent Muslim candidates are running for the NLD this election. Nevertheless, people of Muslim faith, particularly the Rohingya, remain demographically underrepresented and disenfranchised due to challenges upon their eligibility to vote based on the 1982 Citizenship Law. For millions of refugees and migrant workers in Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Thailand, there are no signs or willingness on the part of the government and UEC to provide essential conditions for these populations to be able to fully engage in the elections through absentee voting. In Thailand, only 1,600 people of the very conservatively estimated migrant population of 4 million Myanmar migrants have registered, a population estimate which is likely to be higher due to underreporting.

While there has been a promising spike in women and youth candidacy in comparison to the previous election in 2015 – most prominently reflected within ethnic political parties – women and youth are underrepresented compared with their demographics. Attitudes toward women’s candidacy among political parties may have changed in recent years, but meaningful participation of women in all matters of state building is still impeded by a deep-rooted and institutionalized patriarchal political culture, sexism and narrowmindedness. Political parties’ engagement with or recognizing the role and participation of women in politics ought to focus on their indispensible contribution across all sectors of society rather than as a drawcard to entice women voters.

The next five years hinge on the rights of every person to cast their ballot. The international community must apply pressure on the Myanmar government to ensure these elections are inclusive, free, fair and credible. Prior to the elections, the international community must urgently facilitate a sustained and robust nationwide ceasefire and the UEC must develop a swift action plan to provide all peoples with the opportunity to participate in this election. Concerted efforts are needed by the NLD-led government and the UEC to ensure equal opportunity and inclusivity for all ethnic and religious minorities within the election process. This can be achieved through expeditious voter registration, COVID-19 campaigning guidelines, adopting non-discrimination policies and the necessary resources for vulnerable, marginalized and disenfranchized populations to encourage voter turnout. The government and UEC must recognize the crucial and independent role of civil society and media in election processes. They must be able to do their rightful and legitimate work of monitoring, documenting and reporting on elections without fear of intimidation, threat, reprisal or repercussion. Additionally, blanket reforms of electoral laws and repealing the 1982 Citizenship Law are necessary to restore citizenship of Rohingyas and fully recognize their right to vote and run for elections. Unless and until these conditions and requirements are met, the upcoming elections will likely result in a huge blow to democracy and the continued backsliding of Myanmar’s democratic transition.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”