Tin Aye, chairman of the Union Election Commission. (Soe Than Win / AFP)

The UEC’s challenge: Delivering a clean election

The election commission chairman vows a free and fair vote but inaccurate election rolls might disrupt the democratic process.


Myanmar is preparing for crucial national elections later this year in which U Tin Aye — the chief election commissioner — will play a key role. Expectations are high that the general election will be relatively free and fair, unlike the marred vote in 2010.

In an interview with Frontier, the Union Electoral Commission chairman vowed to ensure that the election will be as free and fair as possible and he acknowledged the possible consequences if they are not. “From recent history we understand the need for stability – and the military accepts this; no one wants a return to international embargoes and sanctions,” U Tin Aye said.

“There is no possibility that the election will be postponed or cancelled,” he insisted, but added that the UEC may use its legal power to cancel or postpone the vote in some areas because of violence and instability. 

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Any such decision would be made in consultation with local government authorities and regional military commanders closer to voting day, he said.

Many in the democratic opposition and civil society remain sceptical that the election will validate U Tin Aye’s promise for a free and fair vote. Others believe he is part of a system put in place by former junta chief Senior General Than Shwe to keep power in the hands of the Tatmadaw and the old guard, at least until the general election in 2020.

There is no doubt this year’s election will be crucial for Myanmar’s future and much depends on it being as clean as possible.

“A lot is riding on these elections being free and fair, or at least appearing to be,” said Sean Turnell a Myanmar specialist at Macquarie University in Sydney.

“Any hint that it’s not, will discourage future foreign investment and lead to many international organisations withdrawing their financial and technical support from the government,” said Dr Turnell. “The international community’s continued backing for the reform process depends on a free and fair election in 2015,” he said.

U Tin Aye and the UEC are already embroiled in a bitter battle with political parties and civil society over the veracity of voter lists being compiled and released for the public to check ahead of the polls. 

U Tin Aye is adamant he is doing all he can to ensure that the lists are accurate and comprehensive. 

The opposition National League for Democracy says the margin of error in voting lists throughout the country ranges from 30 percent to 80 percent. 

“In Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon, there are so many horrible mistakes,” said NLD deputy leader U Tin Oo. “We fear they are preparing to use the advance votes to win the election like last time [2010],” he said.

“We are very concerned about the accuracy of the lists,” NLD spokesperson U Nyan Win told Frontier

“It’s not normal errors or the result of negligence; it is deliberate, intended to damage the NLD,” he said. The NLD has begun checking voter lists in all townships to ensure that errors are identified and corrected. U Nyan Win said the NLD was sending corrections to the UEC every day.

The errors include names being mixed up within families and incorrect birth dates: entire families have sometimes been given the same birth date and in some cases, entire villages or townships.

Retired civil servant U Maung Maung said that of the eight members of his family on a voters’ list, four were incorrect. U Maung Maung said his entry showed part of his brother’s name and his brother’s entry had the other half of his name.

Some of the errors are comical and many have been ridiculed in cartoons.

It is omissions from the lists that are the main concern of many political parties and civil society groups. Observers say that there are cases, at least in Yangon, where entire streets have been left off voting lists.

When the NLD met U Tin Aye in June to discuss voter list discrepancies, the UEC chairman is said to have begun the meeting by asking for U Nyan Win’s name and national identity card number. U Tin Aye then instructed his staff to verify in which constituency the NLD spokesperson was registered to vote. After more than half an hour, U Tin Aye had to sheepishly admit that his staff was unable to find U Nyan Win’s name on the electoral roll.

An initial list of voters in each constituency was drafted by government officials at ward and village level from population and household lists. After a review by these officials, the names of eligible voters were entered into a single national database – using laptops at UEC township level.

“We knew there would be many errors,” admitted U Tin Aye. “But now we are trying to validate the initial lists and correct them in time for the election.” Voters are being encouraged to check the lists posted outside UEC offices in each township and notify officials of omissions and discrepancies.

Voters have seven days under the law to check the lists but U Tin Aye told Frontier that to ensure the rolls are finalised in time for the election, the time limit has been extended to two weeks. The revised rolls will be re-published two weeks after the election date is announced. Voters will then have another two weeks to recheck the lists, although the election law only allows seven days.

“We want to avoid the unpleasant scenes at the last election when voters turned up only to find they were not on the list and were turned away,” U Tin Aye said. The UEC has begun a campaign to encourage voters to check constituency lists and request any necessary corrections. U Tin Aye said the commission was committed to compiling voter lists that are as thorough as possible.

“The final voter list will be published online, so people won’t have to visit the [township UEC] office to check their details,” he said. 

Voters with smartphones or internet access will be able to check their registrations online. U Tin Aye acknowledged that most voters, especially those outside big cities, do not have internet access. 

The director of the Paung Ku advocacy consortium, Dr Kyaw Thu, said part of the problem is a lack of technical and personnel capacity at local UEC offices. 

There are difficulties with the software but a bigger problem is a shortage of the three forms that voters must use to correct – or include – their entries on voter lists.

“We have countless examples of insufficient forms being available, especially in the more remote townships,” said Dr Kyaw Thu. “Inevitably, the voter lists are going to be seriously flawed,” he said.

Another problem is the time being taken by the UEC to make corrections to the lists. Prominent architect and writer U Maw Lin discovered his name was missing from the list in his Yangon constituency and tried to have it included. 

“After a month, and constant enquiries, I was told I’d only find out in August if my correction has been included,” he said. 

Civil society activists and many political parties complain that voter lists for the 2010 election were more accurate than those being compiled for this year’s ballot. 

An NLD activist, U Min Khin, who has been carefully checking voter lists in his electorate in northern Yangon, said be believed that the new lists were deliberately based on the old rolls to eliminate potential voters for the party. 

U Min Khin is certain that NLD voters who did not vote in 2010 because of the party’s boycott were left of the current list.

“The election may be free, but it won’t be fair,” said Dr Kyaw Thu. The fact that government officials will man polling stations will make it impossible to avoid the quiet manipulation of voters in the interests of the ruling Union Social and Development Party, he said.

Extensive election monitoring will be paramount to ensure the election is as free and fair as possible, Dr Kyaw Thu said.

His opinion was echoed by the Asian director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson.

“Having a significant presence of impartial electoral observers is going to be absolutely critical to sort serious problems expected with the voter lists as well as basic conduct of the polls in a country that has not held a real election in more than 55 years,” Mr Robertson said.

For some, the independence of the UEC is highly questionable.

Eleven Media Group chairman and chief executive officer Dr Than Htut Aung has described the UEC as “judge and jury of any complaints that arise during the campaign and the polls”.

The UEC should be independent, said constitutional lawyer and former Australian Federal MP, Janelle Saffin, a research scholar at the Australian National University in Canberra. 

“Here it has executive, legislative and judicial powers, as well as being an administrative body: an unusual fusion of power – unique – and consistent with authoritarian regimes,” Ms Saffin said.

It is little wonder that Myanmar’s pro-democracy political parties and social activists fear the looming general election may be a carefully-crafted charade that will not allow voters to choose the next government through the ballot box in a free and fair vote.

“We hope that the 2015 elections will more free and fair than 2010,” said U Soe Aung, the spokesperson of the Forum for Democracy in Burma who was involved in unofficial monitoring of the 2010 election. 

“The only improvement we’ve seen so far by the authorities is more sophisticated methods of controlling and stacking the process against the opposition.”

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