The Union Election Commission of Myanmar reported turnout at 69 percent for the historic 2015 elections within the country. Outside of the country, the story was very different. Fewer than 20,000 external voters engaged their political right at the ballot box abroad. This amounted to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the over four million people who compose the Burmese diaspora.
“We labor migrants and refugees were simply considered not important enough by the previous Burmese government to be involved in the elections last year,” says a Bangkok-based migrant and labor rights activist from Myanmar, who wishes to stay anonymous due to her illegal status in Thailand.
Burmese migrant activists have begun meeting to plan for the next election four years away. They want a much higher rate of turnout for absentee voters for the next election.
A recent example of this foresight was an open letter from a network of migrant associations operating in Bangkok to Aung San Suu Kyi, state counselor of Myanmar. The open letter was meant to coincide with her official June 2016 visit to Thailand. Though the majority of recommendations were about more immediate concerns of migrant labor rights for Burmese citizens who make the trek to Thailand for work, the letter also included important recommendations for an extension of absentee suffrage. Migrant associations specifically requested guarantees for inclusion in future national elections.
Suu Kyi did not publicly address the absentee suffrage challenge during her visit like she did other migrant labor problems. Yet the fact that politically active Burmese in Thailand included this in their letter already demonstrates their concern with “not losing this opportunity again” for potential external votes to be counted in the next general election.
Lowering Costs for Migrants
In terms of Myanmar’s 2010 House of Representatives Election Law, Burmese citizens abroad should have been able to vote. A provision exists in Chapter IX, sections 45 to 47, which allow for an “advance ballot.” This is meant to assist those citizens who are bedridden, who may be out of the township on business, or who may be even so far away as to be beyond the territorial sovereignty of the state. However, what is legislated through Parliament and what is effected via on-the-ground operations proved to be very different.
“Two million Burmese can’t just drop work and return home to register for the vote,” one activist in Thailand explained. “First, many of these migrant laborers are here illegally, so they have a difficult time traveling back home without being arrested or detained. Second, the costs are too high. Time away from work means that migrants have to choose between returning home to vote and returning remittance home to their family.”
The International Organization for Migration and other nongovernmental migrant groups estimate that the majority of Burmese migrants in Thailand are here without proper travel documents. In 2016, the Thai government began a drive to register tens of thousands of migrant laborers with a special type of migrant work permit. These permits mitigate somewhat the illegal nature of their stay in Thailand. However, for the elections last year these developments came too late.
Even if the nebulous legal nature of Burmese migrant laborers were solved, this would not alleviate the cost issue. The amount of time and money required to return to a migrant’s township to register for an advance ballot are cost prohibitive. An unwritten poll tax is effected against those migrants with the least available means. Burmese migrants who can be considered wealthier “expatriates” working in Bangkok or other international cities have an advantage over the majority.
Avoiding Another “Lost Opportunity”
“We contacted the embassy months before the election to know how to register migrant laborers,” says another Burmese migrant community organizer.
“But none of the staff seemed to understand how to register migrant laborers. The previous government was not providing any real or consistent guidelines for this. They avoided our questions altogether by suggesting that we contact our townships.”
No official mechanism was established by the outgoing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to register labor migrants or refugees in Thailand for the election. Other countries in Southeast Asia with large migrant labor populations, like the Philippines, have taken steps to proactively bolster absentee voters’ ability to register and have their voices heard. This concern did not reach those in government in Myanmar.
In terms of countries concluding international and internal civil war, like Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s and Afghanistan in the 2000s, specific opportunities for refugees to be able to vote in “post-conflict” elections were logistically supported. No similar support was sought for the over 100,000 refugees from Myanmar still living in camps along the Thai-Burmese border.
“I think this was a lost opportunity for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD),” says a Burmese labor rights activist.
The assumption is that these potential absentee voters would have gone overwhelmingly for the challenger NLD political party. This may explain more anything else why the previous government was reluctant to make it easier for migrants in Thailand to register and vote in the 2015 election.
With a majority of seats in Parliament and the transfer of governmental power to the NLD now complete in Myanmar, migrant labor activists and community organizers do not want the over two million Burmese in Thailand to be left out of the vote again.
“We need to make sure that all the migrant laborers have an easier way to participate in the next general election,” an activist explains. “This will mean that the Burmese embassy staff will need to understand how to set up a polling station for all of us here. And we will have to have special polling stations across major Burmese migrant towns, in Bangkok, in southern Thailand, and along the border. This will have to be tied to some mechanism for timely voter registration in home townships.”
Though the next electoral test of Myanmar’s path toward democratic consolidation is still over four years away, migrant activists in Thailand are already making sure their political voice is not discounted again. They hope that the 2020 election in Myanmar will have a turnout that better reflects the more than 4 million potential voters abroad.
T. F. Rhoden is an independent researcher and Ph.D. Candidate at Northern Illinois, with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and Center for Burma Studies.