On Nov. 8. Myanmar holds national and regional elections, in which nearly 7,000 candidates from more than 90 parties, as well as independents, are vying for 1,171 legislative seats at all levels. Leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy is seeking to be returned to office after taking power from the pro-military Union Social Development Party in the last national vote held in 2015. The stiffest competition will again be between the NLD, which is fielding 1,143 candidates, and the USDP, which has put forward 1,129 candidates. Amid a resurgence of coronavirus that has raised concerns about low turnout and prompted calls to postpone the vote, Union Election Commission member Myint Naing spoke to Thet Su Aung of RFA’s Myanmar Service in an interview in the capital Naypyitaw on Thursday.
RFA: Thousands of local villagers are fleeing their homes in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states due to ongoing armed conflicts. What is the prospect of holding elections in these regions?
Myint Naing: We are going to announce the list of townships where elections will not be held. We are going to announce it very soon. Five townships that we didn’t hold elections last time will be included. We are finalizing the list.
RFA: What is the commission doing to secure the voting rights of war refugees in these regions? What percentage of the population do you think will be allowed to vote?
Myint Naing: We will make sure that many people will able to vote. We haven’t announces the townships unable to hold elections yet. Those who are still in these townships will not be able to vote. But if they are now in townships where elections are being held, we’ll arrange to permit them to vote in these townships.
RFA: How many candidates have been disqualified from the election so far? Our records show the commission has disqualified 13 candidates? Can you confirm the number? What are the reasons for most of them getting disqualified? How many of them are appealing the decision?
Myint Naing: A total of 43 candidates have been disqualified by district election commissions after the evaluation or allegations that they should be disqualified under article 35(B) of the election law. One of them was disqualified because the candidate was still government employee. The rest of them were disqualified for not meeting criteria as citizens. We had an appeal process before, but we don’t have it for this election. If the candidates are not satisfied with the commission, we offer them explanations. The citizenship verification process is done by immigration authorities, not by our commission
RFA: Is it the commission’s responsibility to discipline party supporters who are campaigning and parading in large numbers? What is the commission doing to supervise the issue? The USDP chairman said on September 10 that the NLD had violated campaign coronavirus regulations for with large gatherings
Myint Naing: We officially issued an order to limit the number of people to 50 when the party members conduct a campaign event. But, we have seen party supporters showing support in large numbers. If there are problems, I would like to suggest to work with respective coordination committees and local authorities. With regards to enforcing the regulations, these coordination committees are mainly responsible. These coordination committees are comprised of members from each parties contesting the election. So far we assume these coordination committees are in control of the campaigning issues since we haven’t heard anything coming up from the local level.
RFA: The authorities have already limited the movement of people due to the high infection rate. By proportion of the positive cases to the population, the situation in Myanmar in very concerning. Is it possible that the election would be postponed in the event of worsening condition? What are the commission’s plans if it has to be postponed?
Myint Naing: We have observed the experiences of holding elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic in other countries. We have seen elections held in countries where conditions are multiple times worse than ours. We can say the situation is concerning. But, we judged from the experiences of these countries. For example, the election commission chairman of Sri Lanka said they had no COVID-19 outbreaks as a result of the election. We trust their conclusions. We also believe that if we strictly follow standards … there will be no outbreak caused by voting in the election.
RFA: Many parties are still advocating that the commission postpone the election date for a month. Why does the commission refuse to put it off?
Myint Naing: It is not true that many parties have requested postponing the election. It’s only small numbers of parties. Many of them are just suggesting it. We have seen many countries worse than our condition holding elections. Like I said, we have also learned from their experiences. We have nothing to clarify more on that. The United States is going to hold elections soon. There is no reason we cannot hold the election on the scheduled date. We have issued more scrupulous regulations for elections. We received remarks from countries like South Korea that our preparations are better. If everyone cooperates with us, there is no reason we cannot hold this election successfully.
RFA: The commission has censored state media broadcasts of campaign speeches and party policy statements. RFA recorded at least five parties that have been censored. There are criticisms that such actions violate freedom of expression and campaign rights, and that the commission is following orders from the ruling party to cut everything critical of the current administration. What are the commission’s responses to these criticisms?
Myint Naing: We have censored many parties’ campaign speeches. Only a handful of them complained. There was the same censorship in 2010 election too. We have boosted the parties’ image by allowing them to broadcast their statements on state-owned MRTV channel. We expect all political parties to hold high standards and keep their dignity high during the broadcast. By this broadcast, people from around the world will see their party policies, visions and agenda. We want all these parties to be known for their goodwill. We have restrictions mandated by election law. So we have censored all the content that has been deemed inappropriate for the eyes of international audiences. The critics are blaming us for cutting only the broadcast in state-owned media. The political parties may freely propagate their agenda outside the state owned media. They may relay the messages cut out of the state media broadcast. There are also time limits. Some speeches are good with nothing to be cut, but they exceed the time limit.
RFA: Many election observers are questioning the legitimacy of the election after the recent survey by PACE found that a third of voters might be afraid to vote amid the pandemic and people in conflict areas would not be able to vote. How does the commission view this?
Myint Naing: We have estimated that voter turnout will be high in this election. I already explained how we have prepared to keep the voters safe and secure in the voting process. So we noted that the turnout would be high.Questioning the legitimacy of the election result is unnecessary.
RFA: The political parties are restricted from campaigning in large cities due to the health measures, and some people see an advantage for the ruling party. Will it be a fair election? What is the commission doing to avoid that kind of situation?
Myint Naing: We are working in order to have free and fair elections. We give the same opportunities to all parties. We have announced the acceptable methods for campaigning that applies to all parties.
Reported by Thet Su Aung for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung.