Burmese national desperate to vote goes topless, but still no vote
A sea of red greeted me as I made my way up the road to the Burmese embassy at St Martin’s Drive. Burmese lined both sides of the road, the rows of people in red standing three abreast along a pavement sporadically broken by blue uniformed policemen.
The crowd was gathered to vote early in a referendum to approve a new constitution for Burma.The constitution, drawn up by the military junta, is seen by many Burmese as a bald attempt by the junta to cement its grip on power. It disqualifies opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding key political positions as she is married to a foreigner. Miss Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won an election in a landslide in 1990. To this day, her election victory remains unrecognised.
The day had started with a few hundred Burmese trickling up the slope leading to the embassy to cast ballots. As the numbers swelled, and the crowd’s voting intentions were made clear from the bright red NO t-shirts and caps they were wearing, Burmese embassy staff began stopping people from entering the embassy to vote.
Initially, embassy staff began by demanding everyone’s names, contact numbers, and passport numbers. Later, they changed their instructions and demanded tax return forms and passports, as well as an invitation letter from the embassy they claimed had been sent out to eligible voters.
Voters were angry at the requirements, and many I spoke to claimed they were completely unaware of them. Marc told me that embassy staff admitted to sending out only 13,000 forms for the Singaporean Burmese population estimated to be 100,000 strong.
Burmese embassy staff were unavailable for comment.
Strip to vote
The initial statement was greeted with outrage, but the embassy gates remained shut for almost three full hours.
Attempting to break the impasse, Khun, a prospective voter outside the embassy, stripped off his shirt. Looking downcast, he stared sullenly through the embassy gates at the security personnel.
“See, this is what they have forced us to do! They make us strip before we can vote!” a Burmese shouted from the crowd.
Sai, one of the main negotiators on behalf of the Burmese group, explained the political significance of most of the crowd wearing NO t-shirts:
“We expected something like this to happen. Even if we are allowed to vote, they (the junta) might change the results. So we show the world everyone is against them.”
When I approached Khun to ask him how he was feeling, he was stoically resolute. “I will wait. I am not angry. I just want to vote”.
Polling extended: too little too late?
As 5pm, the official closing time for the polls approached, it was clear no end to the impasse was in sight. Finally, at 6pm, a negotiator for the assembled voters conveyed a concession by the embassy: on the last day of overseas voting, the 29th of April, the embassy would stay open until midnight for voters to cast their votes.
Some I spoke to expressed dissatisfaction at the conclusion. One Burmese national, who prefers to remain unnamed, told me that Sunday was one of the only days all Burmese could make it. The majority of Burmese in Singapore work in jobs that make it difficult for them to turn up on weekdays.
As Sai pointed out to me, the 29th was only two days away, and a generous estimate would be that only slightly more than 300 had gotten to vote thus far. It was unlikely that the thousands yet to vote would have a chance to do it before polls closed.
When I asked Marc what the Burmese planned to do if they did not get to vote by the 29th, he was resigned.
“What can we do? Even if we vote no, they can change the vote. But at least we get the message across by showing up.”
As the day wore on and it became clear the embassy officials were not going to extend voting past 6.30pm, the crowd stirred. A voice was raised and then the crowd followed. The assembled Burmese stood to attention and began singing their national anthem. Their voices swelled to a crescendo of near shouting, and several were openly crying.
Still, the gates remained stubbornly closed. I wondered how the ambassador could remain unmoved.
Additional reporting by Choo Zheng Xi
The following video of the event is by Ho Choon Hiong.
Video of Mediacorp’s News 5 Tonight report: