“We have been very concerned by the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the UEC [Union Election Commission] to hold free and fair elections,” National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi said during her final press conference before Myanmar goes to the polls on November 8. “We have repeatedly made complaints about the way in which some parties and individuals have been breaking the rules and regulations laid down by the election commission, but very little action has been taken.”
Aung San Suu Kyi was alluding to the obvious bias in the UEC, which runs the election at the national and local levels. On Thursday, the UEC issued a statement decrying the criticism it has been subjected to for the election’s shortcomings, particularly by the NLD.
It is hardly surprising that a commission led and staffed by former military officers would not be impartial. The chairman, U Tin Aye, is a former army general and Member of Parliament from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In June, he made his views clear: “As a chairman, I am not supposed to have attachment to the party…. I have an attachment, but I don’t put it at the forefront of my mind…. I want the USDP to win, but to win fairly, not by cheating.”
While promising that the 2015 elections would be free and fair, he said they would be conducted in “disciplined democracy style,” using rhetoric closely associated with past Myanmar military governments. On March 27, during the annual Armed Forces Day parade in the capital, Naypyidaw, Tin Aye wore his military uniform during the ceremony, saying: “I would give up my life to wear my uniform. I wear it because I want to. That’s why I wear it even if I have to quit [the UEC] because of that. But there is no law saying I should resign for wearing [my] uniform.”
Other parties are also worried about UEC bias. The commission has rejected nearly 100 candidate applications, most of them by Muslims because the authorities now claim that their parents were not recognized as citizens at the time of the candidate’s birth. This is odd, as some had been elected in previous elections. For instance, the UEC rejected the candidacy of ShweMaung, a Rohingya lawmaker from the ruling USDP. He had planned to run as an independent candidate in this election.
Of the 6,074 approved candidates, 5,130 are Buddhist, 903 Christian and just 28, or 0.5 percent, are Muslim, a sliver of the percentage of Muslims in the general population.This is only partly due to discriminatory decisions by the UEC. The main parties have also shown extreme bias: to stave off criticism from the racist and Buddhist nationalist Ma Ba Tha, which campaigns against Muslim citizenship and in favour of legal discrimination against Muslims in Myanmar, both the NLD and the USDP have no Muslim candidates.
Despite a massive effort supported by international organizations, there are also persistent concerns about the accuracy of voter lists compiled by the UEC. Some 6.5 million people out of a total of 32 million have submitted corrections to the initial list. Aung San Su Kyi mentioned at her press conference that the UEC had vouched for only 30 percent of the voter list. Here in Mytikyina in Kachin State, one man told me that his details are still not correct despite numerous attempts to correct them. “There may be many more problems,” he said.
UEC bias may also show up in how complaints are resolved. Election procedures still lack appropriate mechanisms for addressing complaints. Complaints will be brought before ad hoc tribunals set up under the UEC, with a panel of three arbiters comprised of election commissioners. But in violation of international norms, complainants can only appeal a tribunal’s final decision to the UEC, whose ruling is final and made without judicial oversight. As in other countries, such as Cambodia, where the post-election period has been extremely contentious because of the lack of impartiality of the national election commission, this is where things could unravel. Aung San Suu Kyi said she was worried whether election officials will adequately respond to allegations of irregularities. “If it looks too suspicious then I think we will have to make a fuss about it,” she said.
The Myanmar people appear enthusiastic about the election, but also extremely nervous. The UEC chairman, however, is asking voters to believe in the process, to trust only results announced by the commission. That is easier said than done when the request comes from a man who has made it clear who he wants to win.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia Director at Human Rights Watch