Myanmar officials are scrambling to sort out outdated voter lists in the three-month run-up to November polls, prompting country leader Aung San Suu Kyi to call on the national election commission to swiftly clean up the errors.
Myanmar election authorities are already struggling to ensure voting can take place in several military conflict zones and under coronavirus conditions in the nation of 54 million people. But voter rolls posted in public on July 25 did not spare even one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s cabinet ministers from multiple mistakes.
“It even got wrong information about my family,” said Thein Swe, Myanmar’s Minister of Labor, Immigration and Population.
“My wife’s name is wrong, and the name of my daughter-in-law’s grandmother who passed away is on the list with a later date of birth,” he said during a video conference meeting with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday.
Aung San Suu Kyi urged government departments and the Union Election Commission (UEC) to work together to correct the errors on the lists.
“In the past few weeks, we have seen reports of incorrect or incomplete voter lists,” she said during the videoconference. “There are numerous accounts of that. This is what we should focus on fixing.”
Voter rolls publicly posted by election authorities in cities and towns on July 25 for inspection by voters were scheduled to come down on Friday, but will remain in place until Aug. 14 so people have enough time to file correction requests.
Election subcommission members working with employees from the Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population and the General Administration Department throughout Myanmar compiled the preliminary rolls.
There have been other reports that the lists, issued in townships across the country, contain incorrect names or birthdates and include deceased voters. Some names of voters are missing from the rolls.
Hla Myint, a resident of the commercial capital Yangon’s Insein township, said none of his relatives above the age of 18 are included on the local voter list and that he has had to reapply to be included.
“We were included for the 2015 election, but not for the 2020 election,” he told RFA earlier this week.
Local election officials told Hla Myint that he and his family members were not on the current list because they were not included on one for a previous municipal election.
“They gave us a form to reapply. We submitted it,” he said.
Kachin state election officer Tun Aung Khine said local voter lists in Myanmar's northernmost state were compiled from information from a voter survey conducted during a designated period, but still may not be complete.
“Some families were not present at their homes while the survey was conducted,” he said. “Because we compiled information during the designated period, if they missed the surveyors, then their names wouldn’t be on the list.”
Voter lists are compiled with the goal of granting extensive access to all voters on the ground, rather than deriving information from family household registration records, Thein Swe said.
Officials will correct errors on the lists before election authorities finalize the rolls in October, he added.
Myint Naing, a member of the presidentially appointed, national-level UEC, which organizes and oversees elections in Myanmar, said that the compilation of voter lists is based on household registrations counted in the census as well as from door-to-door surveys.
“If families have their household registration list records, then we count that list; but if the actual people do not match those on the list, then we don’t count them,” he said during the videoconference.
“So, I am satisfied with the methods for counting the voters. It has avoided duplicate counting, but also it has resulted in some errors,” he added.
Responsibility to vote
Mya Nandar Thin, a consultant from the election monitoring group New Myanmar Foundation, recommends that at least one member of each family check the voter lists and urge their neighbors to do the same.
The botched voter lists come in the midst of debates on Facebook as to whether voters should join a No Vote campaign to sit out the election.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is up for reelection for the parliamentary seat representing Yangon region’s Kawhmu township, said those who are eligible to vote have a responsibility to do so.
“Everyone who has turned 18 and was born to parents of national ethnic groups has the right to vote,” she said. “They also have the responsibility to vote, in my opinion. This means taking responsibility for your country.”
“Abstaining from voting just because you don’t like the political system means being irresponsible,” she added, noting that Myanmar citizens have only 12 occasions to vote from age 18 to 80 and that everyone should take advantage of this to ensure a better future for the country.
As of Thursday, more than 6.6 million people had checked the UEC’s initial lists posted at administrative offices in townships, villages, and wards across Myanmar. In all, about 37.5 million voters are eligible to cast ballots in the 2020 elections.
UEC member Myint Naing said he was satisfied with the turnout of people who checked the lists and that complete and accurate lists would be issued following corrections.
Producing accurate preliminary voter rolls is also proving to be a problem in conflict zones.
The lists could not be posted publicly in 15 village-tracts in parts of volatile Rakhine state that currently have no administrative bodies, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported, citing the Rakhine State Election Subcommission.
Myanmar forces have been fighting the rebel Arakan Army (AA) in northern Rakhine during the past 20 months.
Likewise, initial voter lists could not be posted in most of neighboring Chin state’s Paletwa township, where the two armies also have engaged in clashes.
The last general elections
The UEC created the country’s first digitized voter rolls for the 2015 general elections based on citizen residence records held by the General Administration Department and the Immigration Ministry, according to an April 2019 report on Myanmar’s elections by the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace.
But the data, which in many cases was not up-to-date or accurate, prompted concerns that the derivative voter list was going to prevent voters from casting ballots. It was only after numerous voter lists were displayed and updated that international observers of the election concluded that very few voters were turned away on election day for not being included on the rolls, the report said.
Now, however, Myanmar faces the challenge of updating the 2015 voter lists to include 5 million young voters eligible to cast ballots in 2020, removing those who have died, accounting for undocumented migrants, and handling requests for the transfer of votes and advance votes from abroad, the think tank said.
“A flawed voter list in 2020 would spark conflict over disputes from losing opposition parties or candidates and undermine the legitimacy of the results in certain constituencies,” the report said.
It went on to say that the UEC does not have the budget to update 2020 voter lists properly and that Myanmar’s national parliament would not likely increase funding to ensure accurate and inclusive voter lists.
Nearly 100 political parties have put forward candidates for the Nov. 8 elections in what's likely to be a tough contest among contenders from the popular ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party, and many ethnic parties. The candidates are vying for 1,171 seats available in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.
Reported by Nay Myo Htun, Phyu Phyu Khine, and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.