ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) welcomed Myanmar’s announcement of a date for its long-awaited general election, but warned that a nationwide vote alone was not enough to guarantee the country’s continued transition to democracy, according to a press release on July 10.
“We didn’t expect this transition to take place overnight, and a level of patience and understanding is certainly necessary. But we do insist that the process be genuine and transparent,” said APHR’s Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of parliament in Malaysia.
The Union Election Commission in Myanmar announced July 8 that voting would be held across the country on 8 November. The highly anticipated elections will be closely watched by ASEAN and the world as a key test of the country’s ongoing transition.
Just a day earlier, however, Myanmar’s parliament overwhelmingly passed the highly controversial Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill (also known as the Interfaith Marriage Bill), which places legal restrictions on Buddhist women seeking to marry men of other faiths.
The bill’s passage represents a major step backward for human rights in Myanmar at a critical time in the country’s transition, APHR warned.
“This law discriminates against women and religious minorities and is wholly incompatible with international human rights norms. It should never have made it to parliament and must be scrapped,” Santiago said.
“With interfaith tensions in Myanmar already at alarming highs, such laws threaten to exacerbate the problem and raise the specter of further violence around the elections and beyond.”
The law, along with others in the notorious package of so-called ‘Race and Religion Protection’ bills, is incompatible with Myanmar’s legal obligations as a state party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, APHR said.
While praising the military-dominated government’s apparent willingness to live up to its promise to conduct elections in 2015, parliamentarians also raised concerns regarding a range of issues that, if unaddressed, threaten to undermine the credibility of November’s vote.
The potential for large-scale disenfranchisement remains a primary concern. APHR warned that millions of voters could be prevented from casting ballots due to the potential cancellation of voting in conflict zones, burdensome procedural requirements for migrant workers eligible to vote, and the government’s recent decision to strip voting rights from temporary ID card holders, who had been allowed to vote in previous elections.
“All counted, we could see up to 10 million people—around 20 percent of Myanmar’s total population—unable to take part in these elections, and that could cast serious doubts over the legitimacy of the vote,” Santiago added.
“We are ready and willing to offer our support and advice to help Myanmar hold free and fair elections. We want to see equal space for all parties to campaign and the presence of independent election monitors, which will be vital to ensuring a credible contest.”
APHR welcomed the news that election authorities were taking steps to address a number of other concerns, including by extending the review period for voting lists and instituting new procedures to safeguard the integrity of advance voting. But parliamentarians urged continued vigilance and work to ensure that the vote is successful and credible.
Only 75 percent of parliamentary seats are up for election on 8 November, with 25 percent still reserved for military appointees. Amending this and other fundamentally undemocratic clauses in the military-drafted constitution should be the first order of business of any new parliament, APHR said.
“The military, with its 25 percent hold on parliament, is able to veto any constitutional amendments. It is therefore up to the generals to take the next important step by giving up this quota and supporting other necessary amendments to bring the constitution in line with democratic norms. Without that, we cannot say that Myanmar’s transition is really moving forward,” said Walden Bello, APHR board member and former Philippines Congressman.
“The first five years of semi-civilian rule have led to a degree of political opening. But the next government must take that even further. It must secure a clear timeline for the military’s full withdrawal from politics and must work to institutionalize the rule of law, checks and balances, and a genuinely democratic constitution. Only then can we really call this a democratic transition.”