A fringe debate on Facebook about the merits of not voting in the November election has sparked threats of criminal charges and the anger of the civilian political elite.
By PYAE SONE AUNG | FRONTIER
Ko Myo Min Tin created the No-Vote Community Myanmar Facebook group on July 21 as a place to publicly weigh the pros and cons of not voting in the November election.
The 42-year-old Yangon-based IT professional, who has no known background in politics or activism, explained that “no-voters can be mainly classified into two groups: those who will never vote on principle in an election governed by the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, and those who voted in 2015 but are so unhappy with the ruling party’s performance and political incompetence they won’t vote again.”
“The vast majority is in the second group,” he told Frontier.
But Myo Min Tin didn’t start the conversation, whose evolution is a case study in social media’s outsized and unpredictable role in driving public debate in Myanmar.
The rumblings began in mid June when Ko Lynn Htet Swe, author of a well-known introduction to modern philosophy, wrote a Facebook post criticising the government for the violence in Rakhine State, where the Tatmadaw is locked in a bloody conflict with the Arakan Army, and citing this as a justification for his refusal to vote on November 8. His June 15 post was shared by member of the Rakhine State parliament U Kyaw Zaw Oo.
Lynn Htet Swe continued to post about his reasons for abstaining from the vote, and meanwhile a number of similarly-named Facebook groups were formed for people to express their dissatisfaction with electoral politics, of which Myo Min Tin’s group was one.
However, the conversation remained at the margins of social media in Myanmar. Combined, the Facebook groups’ members still number less than 1,000. But in July, anger at the small community of no-voters began to spread on pro-National League for Democracy pages and groups on Facebook, and an opposing “go-vote” camp formed. Then came condemnation from senior politicians, including NLD vice chair Dr Zaw Myint Maung and representatives of ethnic parties such as the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy.
This proved to be a strategic blunder for these politicians. After their angry reactions were reported in conventional media, the “no vote” debate acquired national prominence and attracted several prominent activists. On August 8, the 32nd anniversary of the 8888 uprising, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions launched its own no-vote campaign, which has received the support of the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions.
“To say, ‘I don’t like this or I don’t like that’ and to refuse to vote is a very irresponsible act,” State Counsellor and NLD chair Daw Aung San Suu Kyi told senior government officials during an August 5 teleconference. Her comments were a mark of just how pervasive the “no vote” debate had become.
“All citizens should perform their duties by voting, which is a matter of only one day every five years,” she said.
It might seem a curious argument coming from Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party 10 years ago boycotted an election held under the military junta, which was condemned internationally as being rigged in favour of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Ahead of the 2010 general election, U Tun Yin, secretary of the NLD’s Dala Township chapter, was briefly detained for distributing leaflets featuring Aung San Suu Kyi’s message about the right to refrain from voting.
One justification for the NLD’s boycott that year, besides the exclusion of Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners from the election, was that the contest was being held under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. This guarantees the Tatmadaw a quarter of parliamentary seats, control of several key ministries and all security agencies, and a veto on amendments to the charter. The NLD contested, and won, the 2015 election even though the constitution remained unchanged. Since then, the NLD’s attempts to change the charter using its parliamentary majority have foundered on the Tatmadaw’s veto.
“She is inconsistent,” Ko Kyaw Ko Ko, leader of political organisation the Social Democratic United Front, told Frontier. “In 2010 she said people have the right not to vote. Voting shows the consensus of the people. Forcing people to vote robs it of all its meaning.”
The over-eagerness with which senior politicians have condemned the no-voters has not only amplified what was previously a fringe debate, but has also revealed the anxieties of civilian politicians over the prospect of a low turnout in the November election. Even if the NLD were to win another victory, as many expect, a dismal turnout would undermine the legitimacy of a new NLD government and its moral high-ground over the military.
The NLD-appointed Union Election Commission has even indicated it would take legal action against no-vote advocates, citing six clauses replicated in the Pyithu Hluttaw, Amyotha Hluttaw and state and regional hluttaw election laws that criminalise voter bribery and intimidation as well as encouraging people to vote or not vote in or near a polling station. None of these clauses appear relevant to a peaceful social media campaign.
For many, the holding of routine elections is – at the very least – proof that Myanmar is on the path towards democracy. As the third election under the 2008 Constitution and the first election held under an NLD administration, the November poll has its own historic implications.
“An election is very meaningful in a democracy; the two cannot be separated,” Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the NLD’s Central Information Committee, told Frontier. “Voting means electing a government using one’s free will and, by voting, you are fully exercising your human rights. Telling people not to vote is a violation of their human rights.”
Critics of the “no vote” advocates are quick to highlight the lives lost or years wasted languishing in jail, the families ruined and the dreams crushed in the struggle for a democratic Myanmar.
Among them is U Myo Yan Naung Thein, who was sentenced to six months in prison in April, 2017 under Section 66d of the Telecommunications Law for calling on military chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing to resign in a Facebook post, and who was secretary of the NLD’s Central Committee for Research and Strategy Studies before being suspended from the party in 2019 for “overstepping his authority”.
“The right to vote comes from the strength of the fingers that gripped the prison bars, the ceaseless tears of mothers,” he wrote in a July 25 Facebook post, ending his message with a jarring call for people “to go against the no-voters and destroy them”.
Aung Shin, however, struck a more sympathetic tone, conceding that many are disaffected with the NLD.
“We failed to amend the constitution and provide substantive rights and improvements to people’s lives. But we tried and we will keep on trying,” he said. “It’s not right to say we should stop trying because we failed.”
But encouraging people to abandon the vote was “anti-democratic”, he said, adding that people were free to “vote for whatever party they like, but not voting is nihilistic.”
Asked whether this line was consistent with the party’s boycott in 2010, Aung Shin said, “It is different now. We are striving for a federal democracy that every ethnicity should embrace through a general election. A no-vote campaign this time is completely incompatible with our agenda.”
A rigged game
Despite being the leader of a political group, Kyaw Ko Ko said he has never voted in an election – and this year will be no exception.
“I don’t think the election will force change to the political system,” said the former ABFSU chairperson. “I don’t support it in its current form.”
“The alternative approach is that revolution must be sought,” he said.
Not armed revolution, he explained, but a “democratic revolution in which workers, farmers, women, students and ethnic groups form a united front to strive for their rights together.”
As with most people disillusioned by Myanmar politics, his frustration centres on a constitution he described as a set of regulations carefully planned by the military to limit the power of parliament and the civilian government.
“The constitution must be revoked. I see political forces being sucked into a framework set by the military. There’s an inability to break free from the enemy,” he said.
Not voting is a moral imperative for Yangon University Student Union central committee member Ko Aung Phone Maw, who sees it as the only way to avoid authorising the military’s presence in politics. “The election in Myanmar exists because the military state understands it cannot just exercise power continuously and so it must seek legitimacy under the crowning democratic title of a people’s state,” he told Frontier.
Refusing to vote won’t change anything, people tell him, “and I agree with them. But I add that voting won’t change anything either.”
“When people keep trying to do something and keep failing miserably, doing nothing at all may [be an] authentic political act,” he said.
Voting is also not the only way that the public can engage in politics, said Ma Shunn Lei, a feminist activist and co-founder of the Rainfall Feminist Organization. She called the election a Tatmadaw-infused attempt to consolidate the patriarchy.
“I don’t think an election can bring justice, but civil rights movements and revolutions will,” she told Frontier.
In Myanmar society, she said, women are objectified, their bodies are policed and their speech curbed. Parliament validates this treatment by refusing to amend four “race and religion” laws passed under the USDP government in 2015 that restrict interfaith marriage and punish people who have more than one spouse or live with an unmarried partner.
“I don’t see why we should encourage women to be part of this corrupted patriarchal political system,” she added. “I am a no-voter because, if anything, these superficial parliaments are weakening the feminist push to generate structural change.”
While sexual and domestic violence and gender discrimination are rampant in factories in Myanmar’s cities and in civil conflicts in the ethnic borderlands, she said, “women MPs who once were activists are now sitting silent.”
These issues are seldom discussed in parliament, she added, “so what is the point of an election?”
Ethnic minorities have felt neglected by the government, but many are reluctant to give up one of the few rights they can exercise, even if they doubt the power of their votes.
Vungh Kham Mung, secretary of the Zomi Congress for Democracy, described voting as “one of our very few rights,” but she empathises with the no-voters.
“I understand the frustrations the no-vote campaigners have with the situation,” she told Frontier. “I may vote, but it is their right to vote or not.”
In contrast, Zaw Lynn Aung, an Arakan League for Democracy member who contested a Pyithu Hluttaw seat for Rakhine State’s Ann Township in a 2017 by-election, has lost all faith in the ability of electoral politics to improve the lives of ethnic minorities. He said he will not be voting this year.
“The hluttaw is dominated by a Bamar NLD majority. Ethnic minorities have never had a chance to raise their voice,” he said. “It is my right as a citizen not to vote.”
But one particular minority group is largely denied the choice of whether to vote or abstain in the first place. While the almost wholescale exclusion of the Rohingya is of little concern to mainstream Myanmar society, which views them as outsiders, it is a blight to the credibility of Myanmar elections in the eyes of the international community.
Rohingya voted in the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 election, which saw them elect Rohingya candidates to parliament, representing townships in northern Rakhine State. However, the large majority of Rohingya who are denied citizenship were disenfranchised ahead of the 2015 election and have remained so ever since.
But even for the small number of Rohingya who are citizens, the right to run for office is restricted.
Four Rohingya members of the Muslim-led Democracy and Human Rights Party who are seeking to contest seats in Rakhine State in the November election have been disqualified as candidates by district election sub-commissions.
They were deemed ineligible on the grounds that their parents were not citizens at the time that they, the aspiring candidates, were born, as required by electoral law. The DHPRP members claim to have evidence of their parents’ citizenship status and are in the process of appealing their disqualification.
DHRP chairperson U Kyaw Min is among those branded as ineligible – despite being elected to parliament in the 1990 election, whose results were ignored by the military junta. However, he called no-voters “plain stupid.”
“It would be their loss not to vote when they are allowed to,” he said, expressing frustration at those who take for granted basic rights that are denied to many in Myanmar.
However, Rohingya freelance researcher Ko Myo Min said the election was unlikely to bring positive change to his community or to the country as a whole. Just like under the junta, he said, people have been charged and jailed for protesting under the NLD.
“The political system appears to change in name but nothing changes intrinsically. It’s still largely a military dictatorship,” he told Frontier.
Whereas the election represents democratic progress for many in Myanmar, “for us it is evidence of our extreme marginalisation and that we face the most discrimination,” he said.
“We were robbed of our citizenship, which we’d had for generations. We are again reminded of how we are othered by the majority.”