From 2-10 November 2015, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), together with its Thai member, the People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF) conducted an election observation mission in Yangon, Burma/Myanmar. The objective was to observe the final week of before the historic elections of 8 November 2015.
12 November 2015 2:49 pm
(Yangon, 10 November 2015) From 2-10 November 2015, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), together with its Thai member, the People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF) conducted an election observation mission in Yangon, Burma/Myanmar. The objective was to observe the final week of before the historic elections of 8 November 2015.
First of all, FORUM-ASIA congratulates the people of Burma/Myanmar on holding the first freest elections in their country’s history. It reaffirms the commitment to political reform. We hope the elections will contribute to a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous future for the people of the country.
However, although the electoral process was the freest and fairest in Burma/Myanmar’s history, the FORUM-ASIA still observed several problems that are reason for concern. The following update presents an overview of the preliminary findings of the mission. A full-report will follow shortly.
Right to Vote
About 80 percent of 33.5 million eligible voters choose one of the opposition parties. It demonstrated the strong desire for change of a people who have been under some form of military regime for more than five decades. However, many people were left behind. They stripped off their right to vote during the elections.
In February 2015, the Government, under apparent pressure of Buddhist extremist groups, declared that temporary ID cards, also known as white cards, had expired. Amendments to electoral laws resulted in the denial of the right to vote of white card holders. Many of the people affected by these amendments were Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state. This was the first time that Rohingya Muslims were not allowed to exercise their right to vote; a fundamental political right which constitutes an important element of the electoral system.
The cancellation of the elections in conflict areas, such as Kachin, Karen and Shan State, stripped the people in more than 600 villages of their right to vote. A number much higher than in 2010, when it affected 478 villages.(1)
Moreover, less than 20,000 migrant workers of the estimated 2 million workers residing outside the country were able to register. These migrants, who mostly live in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, were excluded from the elections too.(2)
Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression
Interviews by FORUM-ASIA with a prominent local media and a media institute, gave the impression that the 2015 elections were considered ‘relatively free’ in terms of political communications. The media freedom of in particular local journalists was still restricted though. While broadcast media were closely monitored by the Ministry of Information, elections-related content in print media was less restricted.
It was observed that state-controlled media focused more on candidates from the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and provided noticeably less space to candidates from other political parties.
This is problematic. The former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, stated in one of his reports that “Media should be able to operate freely from any kind of political influence and intervention and should not be restricted or regulated especially before, during and after elections.”(3)
Threats and Intimidation
The interviews also revealed that during the campaign period, Muslim candidates in Yangon from the United National Congress (UNC) party encountered difficulties in running their public campaigns due to threats and intimidation from nationalist Buddhist group, Ma Ba Tha.
A woman candidate from the National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Insein, who had been very vocal against the Four Laws on Race and Religion, was also threatened by the same group. Her campaign office was attacked.
Additionally, the arrest of two activists, who had mocked the military on social media prior to the elections, stopped the use of social media related to the elections of many. They were charged under Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law.
These threats and intimidations hindered the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The general comment No. 34 (2011) on article 19 on freedoms of opinion and expression states that, “the free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential. This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint and to inform public opinion.”
Right to Freedom of Assembly and Association
Although the right to freedom of assembly and association was ‘pretty well-respected’ during the campaign period and after the elections, there still were some minor violations of this right reported.
The regulatory procedures of the public assembly were inconsistent since each local township applied different rules and regulations on the use of public space. For example, the NLD was denied by Yangon Region authorities to hold their campaign rally at People’s Park in Yangon.(4) The NLD was also forced to stop their planned rally in Kachin state after they were attacked by a group of armed men.(5)
Human Rights Defenders
Both the arrest of Myat Nu Khaing, the independent woman candidate, who participated in a peaceful protest against the violent crackdown in Letpadaung, which took place in front of Chinese Embassy in December 2014, as well as the arrest of two student activists, Kyaw Ko Ko and Lin Htet Naing, who led the Letpadan education reform protests in March 2015, prior the elections also sent a worrisome warning signal about the legal harassment of human rights defenders who were exercising their right to peaceful protest against government’s policies.
While the percentage was still very low and women’s participation in politics needs to be greatly enhanced, the 2015 elections showed a dramatic increase in the number of women candidates. 800 candidates ran this time, compared to the 110 in 2010 and the 84 in 1990.(6)
LGBT rights was one of most neglected human rights issues in the 2015 elections. There was no LGBT candidate running in any party and there was no official campaign from any party to promote and protect LGBT rights.
While the elections of 8 November 2015 in Burma/Myanmar were the freest and fairest the country has ever seen, the FORUM-ASIA team still witnessed many issues and problems that are cause for concern. It can only be hoped that the political developments that will result from these elections will make sure that further improvement will be seen in the next ones.
(3)Frank La Rue, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (A/HRC/26/30).
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