Teachers risked their health to serve at polling stations on election day. Now several face lawsuits brought by the losing party.
By SWE LEI MON | FRONTIER
Daw Khin Mar Yi has long suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes, putting her at significant risk of complications if she were to catch the coronavirus. But that didn’t stop the 58-year-old teacher from serving as head of her village polling station in Pauk Inn, in Pyawbwe Township, Mandalay Region, on election day.
She managed to avoid the virus on election day but is now facing a very different threat: she’s been accused of canvassing for the winning National League for Democracy while administering advance voting.
The charges have been brought against her by the NLD’s main rival, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which suffered across-the-board losses in Pyawbwe on November 8.
The charges have left her husband anxious.
“Her health is poor, but she served the country without hesitation, despite the threat of COVID-19,” U Myo Thant, a 64-year-old retired teacher, said of his wife. “I’m upset she has to appear in court at her age, and in her health.”
USDP member U Mya Shwe filed the complaint under section 61(a) of the Pyithu Hluttaw Election Law at the Pyawgone village tract police station on November 1, accusing both Khin Mar Yi and Myo Thant of telling elderly voters to cast their ballots for the NLD when they visited their homes to collect advance votes before election day. The township court accepted the charges and opened the case on November 25.
Khin Mar Yi is among more than 10 teachers who served as the heads of polling stations and are facing legal complaints submitted by the USDP, according to the Myanmar Teachers’ Federation, the largest teachers’ organisation in Myanmar. It is helping the teachers in their legal battle, including by arranging legal representation for them.
About 200,000 teachers served at polling stations in the general election, Ministry of Education figures show. The MTF says 108 were subsequently infected with COVID-19, and two have died. Teachers were infected in Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Bago, Magway and Mandalay regions, as well as in Kayin State.
MTF secretary Dr Zaw Myo Hlaing, 45, said USDP party members have filed complaints against teachers in Pyawbwe, Nyaung-U, Myingyan and Ngazun townships in Mandalay Region; Phyu and Yedashe townships in Bago Region; and in some Ayeyarwady Region townships as well. He said region-level MTF offices were helping the teachers and that some of the cases have already been resolved through negotiation before court cases got underway.
Although Myo Thant faces the same charges as his wife because he drove her around villages on a motorbike to collect the early votes, he said he’s more worried about his wife, because of her health. She’s never had to appear in court before and is distressed by the prospect, he told Frontier on December 11.
“But we are not as worried about the outcome,” he said, “because the truth is on our side.”
Accusations of bias
At a news conference in Yangon on November 11, the USDP accused “many teachers who served in the polling stations” of being “pro-NLD”. This prompted an immediate demand for an apology by the MTF, which said the accusation “insults the dignity of teachers”.
While the USDP has not issued an apology, it later said that the allegation was actually the result of a typo, and that the statement read at the press conference should have said, “teachers served impartially in the election which was held by the NLD”. Both the explanation and the initial comment were widely derided.
“It’s unacceptable,” Zaw Myo Hlaing said. “Teachers have the right to support whatever party they like, but that doesn’t mean they serve in polling stations with bias – they perform their duties transparently, in front of the people.”
To add further insult, U Thein Kyi, chair of a USDP ally, the National Political Alliance League, while attempting to blame complaints with voter lists on poll workers, quoted a proverb at a November 25 press conference that many interpreted as comparing teachers to dogs.
U Thein Than Oo, a Myanmar Lawyers’ Network attorney who is representing Khin Mar Yi and Myo Thant pro bono, said he believed the USDP was bringing charges against teachers in an attempt to raise doubts about the integrity of an election in which it suffered a crushing defeat.
“Their candidates lost by big margins to their NLD rivals. That was the people’s decision, and the USDP is responding by trying to save face. It wants people to believe it failed because of bias in the polling process,” he said.
In a December 3 statement, the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network called for all complaints against teachers who served at polling stations to be withdrawn, promising to defend any teacher facing legal action free of charge.
USDP spokesperson Thein Tun Oo said the criticism against the USDP for bringing the cases was unfair.
“We are taking legal action against some teachers because they hurt us in the election,” he told Frontier on December 11. “We are not suing all teachers, only those who broke the law.”
Fending for themselves
The first hearing in Khin Mar Yi and Myo Thant’s case, on December 8, attracted an unusually large crowd of supporters, including neighbours and members of teachers’ organisations.
Thein Than Oo, who has represented farm and labour activists in the past, said he was confident after hearing Mya Shwe’s testimony that the couple’s obvious innocence would mean a speedy trial.
“Mya Shwe is a simple, rural man,” he said. “He [seemed nervous and] gave the impression that he was pressured into filing the complaint against the couple.”
Frontier could not reach Mya Shwe for comment. In his initial complaint filed with police, he claims to have witnessed the couple telling elderly voters to vote for the NLD.
U Soe Myint, chair of the Pyawbwe election sub-commission, said that the commission tried to help the teachers and the USDP-allied plaintiffs settle the matter out of court, but was unsuccessful.
The loss of all four seats in Pyawbwe – a traditional USDP stronghold – stunned the military-aligned party, and all four candidates have refused to concede defeat.
“Both sides initially said they were satisfied with the negotiations, but a few days later the court opened the case,” Soe Myint said. “We tried our best to avoid that.”
Zaw Myo Hlaing said the MTF had planned to pay Thein Than Oo, but the lawyer, believing his clients are victims of an abuse of power, refused to accept payment.
“Election duty is not compulsory; teachers volunteer to do this extra duty, which has resulted in more than 100 teachers being infected with COVID-19,” Thein Than Oo told Frontier.
Meanwhile, the education ministry is facing increasing criticism for remaining silent throughout the matter.
As public servants, teachers risk losing their jobs if convicted on such charges, said U Zaw Myo Hlaing, a physics lecturer at the University of West Yangon. “The ministry should be standing up for them,” he said.
U Ko Lay Win, director general of the ministry’s Department of Basic Education, said the ministry had directed all regional and township-level basic education department heads to provide legal assistance to teachers facing lawsuits.
“There was no statement issued but I have already directed them to provide the necessary support to affected teachers, and to counter-sue those who filed suits against teachers,” he told Frontier on December 11.
If that is the policy, the word doesn’t seem to have gotten out everywhere. Myo Thant said the township’s education department officials have testified at court hearings but have otherwise provided no assistance to him and his wife.
Zaw Myo Hlaing said the MTF has no plans to make demands of a ministry it says has consistently refused to stand up for teachers.
“Instead of begging the ministry to do it, teachers have decided to protect and provide for one another on their own,” he said.
He said he’d even heard that some mid-level ministry officials are giving the opposite instruction to teachers.
“We have heard that some district and township-level education officers had ordered teachers not to help colleagues facing lawsuits,” he said. “It is ugly; it is not their business to tell other teachers not to get involved in helping each other.”
Thein Than Oo said he’s heard of education officers criticising teachers for inquiring about legal assistance.
“They should be trying to protect the teachers,” he said. “Our country was a military dictatorship from 1962 to 2011, and the remnants from that period are still [present] in some government departments.”
Infected while serving
Among the teachers who tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after serving at polling stations is Daw Htet Htet Aye, from the No 6 Basic Education High School in Yangon Region’s Insein Township.
“On election day, we worked non-stop from 4am to midnight. Three days later, on November 11, I began to feel ill,” she told Frontier.
More than a month later she is yet to fully recover, she says. Her family has been hurting financially because four of her relatives had to be quarantined after she tested positive.
“Family budgets are tight and we have to use what money we have on our health,” she told Frontier.
The education ministry, responding to demands from teachers organisations, said on December 11 it would provide K300,000 to 71 Basic Education Department employees infected with COVID-19 on election day, but it is unclear specifically how many of these are teachers, or how claims were assessed.
Zaw Myo Hlaing welcomed the move but said it had come too late, as all survivors have already been discharged from hospitals and treatment centres.
“They don’t want the money, but they do want recognition from the ministry for assisting with the election. They felt alone when they were in hospital,” he said. “They all said that despite becoming ill they did not regret serving at polling stations.”
Htet Htet Aye, for one, does not.
“Some teachers may have made mistakes, but they were honest mistakes. They received special training for just one day from the UEC on COVID-19 precautions, and they all served the best they could, given the circumstances,” she said.
Given the opportunity, she added, she would gladly serve again in 2025.