A Question and Answer session with Mu Sochua, APHR Board Member and former Cambodian Member of Parliament (MP)
You visited Myanmar in 2015, during the last elections, how are things different five years later?
Yes, I visited Myanmar in 2015, months before the last general election, as part of a five-member fact-finding mission with ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
In our end of mission statement, we raised a number of issues, including the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters – notably the Rohingya but also other ethnic minorities; the rejection of candidates based on dubious citizenship grounds; the dire conditions faced by the Rohingya; the devastating impact of Myanmar’s civil wars; restrictions on fundamental freedoms; and the proliferation of hate speech.
Sadly, five years later, and as Myanmar prepares to return to the polls on November 8, many of the issues we highlighted remain, and in fact some have grown more pronounced during the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) first term.
How free and fair is Myanmar’s 2020 election likely to be?
Far from it. In order to be free and fair, an election must fulfill a number of criteria, including voters being able to cast their votes without intimidation, violence or administrative interference, while all participants in the electoral process must be treated equally and impartially under the law, and by authorities.
The media should also be able to cover electoral campaigns freely, without interference or unreasonable restrictions imposed by authorities.
In the upcoming vote, Myanmar falls short of these requirements in many areas. There are also concerns about the vote being held in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Will everyone have the right to vote?
No, and it is the religious and ethnic minorities who are most heavily affected. For an election to be free and fair, there should be an impartial and accurate voter registration procedure, and no restrictions on voting for women, persons with disabilities, internally displaced persons, or other groups or minorities. Once again, Myanmar falls chronically short in this category.
The roughly one million Rohingya in Bangladesh, and the hundreds of thousands still living in Myanmar – as well as other among Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities – are barred from voting, in part due to the country’s discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law and Election Law, both of which grant a different set of political rights for those holding different “tiers” of citizenship. These laws are highly discriminatory, and institutionalize discrimination based on race or ethnicity.
This legal framework is also being used to prevent some people from standing as candidates, based on their religion or ethnicity. At least eight Rohingya and Muslim candidates have been rejected by the UEC, on the grounds that they were either not citizens when they were born or their parents did not possess citizenship documents at the time of the candidate’s birth. Such arbitrary criteria was similarly used to prevent APHR Board Member U Shwe Maung, who is Rohingya, from contesting the 2015 vote.
Further, the UEC decision to cancel either as a whole or in part, voting in at least 56 townships in Shan, Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, Chin, and Mon States, as well as Bago region, citing security concerns, will mostly exclude people from ethnic minorities. The move does not only disenfranchise important parts of the Myanmar population but it will also deepen distrust of the central government, especially in Rakhine State, where seats held by the Arakan National Party were most heavily affected.
Then there are the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons in Myanmar, many who will be unable to vote, either because of restrictions on their movement, or because they don’t have the necessary paperwork to register as voters.
Does Myanmar have the institutions to ensure an election that is fair, and reflects the genuine will of the electorate?
The military-drafted 2008 constitution and the lack of an independent election commission, will undermine the fairness of the polls.
A crucial component of a vote’s fairness is the presence of an independent electoral body that treats all political parties and candidates equally, enjoys the confidence of voters, is free from interference, and conducts its work in a transparent and accountable manner.
Myanmar’s UEC is far from this. Its members are chosen by the ruling party, paving the way for partisan interference, while it operates in absence of any legislative oversight, and its work is shrouded in secrecy.
In the build-up to the vote, several orders by the UEC have prompted criticism that it is creating an uneven playing field between political parties, including an announcement that allows members of the Government to conduct party-related activities, and their decision to cancel voting in many townships without any genuine consultation, appearing to benefit the NLD.
Then there is the constitution, passed in a heavily-flawed referendum in 2008, which guarantees a quarter of parliamentary seats to unelected military officials, and grants the army control of three key ministries. Efforts to change the constitution, and lessen the military’s influence in parliament, a key component of the NLD’s 2015 electoral promises, have gone nowhere.
Without reforms to the constitution and the UEC, the upcoming vote will not be fair, nor will it provide an outcome that accurately reflects the aspirations of the people.
Why do you say this election will not be free?
An election that is free ensures that all citizens can cast their vote without intimidation, and can openly learn about different political views. To achieve this, the full enjoyment of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association are integral.
Once again, Myanmar falls short. Fundamental freedoms under the NLD have declined, as authorities have used repressive laws against human rights activists, journalists, and dissidents for peacefully expressing their opinion. Notably, there has been a crack down on those sharing information about COVID-19, or being critical of the Government’s response to the pandemic, further stifling free speech.
In July, the UEC announced that political parties could broadcast their campaigns on state-owned television and radio but this was subject to approval based on overly-broad requirements such as speech that must not defame the military, tarnish the nation’s image, or threaten national security. Several political parties have since cancelled their broadcast after the UEC edited their speeches.
Restrictions on free speech are exacerbated in Rakhine and Chin states, where mobile internet services are restricted, severely limiting the ability of people there to send and receive information. On top of this, the Government also ordered internet providers to block access to dozens of ethnic media websites, in Rakhine but also elsewhere in the country, affecting the free flow of information.
In addition, the region-wide COVID-19 stay-at-home order has restricted the movement of journalists, impacting their ability to do their job effectively.
Hate speech has a notorious recent history in Myanmar. What is the situation as the election approaches?
Hate speech against religious and ethnic minorities, and disinformation about parties and candidates, have increased ahead of the 2020 election and could heighten the risk of violence, yet the Government has not taken any action to either tackle the root causes of hate speech or hold accountable those perpetuating it.
It has also not denounced or countered hateful campaign narratives to ease tensions and avoid violence ahead of the vote.
As a former MP, what are your hopes for the new parliament in Myanmar?
We hope to see a parliament that puts human rights and democracy at the forefront. One that takes its international obligations seriously, and genuinely addresses the many issues that the country is facing, whether that is the continued dreadful conditions faced by the Rohingya, the ongoing civil war, the restrictions on fundamental freedoms, or the proliferation of hate speech.
To achieve this, it is crucial to listen to the voices of the people in the communities most heavily affected. For too long in Myanmar, major decisions that impact people’s lives have been made by a select few at the country’s centre, with those living at the periphery ignored.
The next parliament in Myanmar must ensure it is fully representative and listens to these voices, and ensure that people from all aspects of society – whether women, ethnic or religious minorities, or others – are given a genuine say in the future direction of the country.
It should also prioritize constitutional change, to remove unelected military officials, and ensure that those seated in parliament are chosen by the people.