The Institute is very happy to post this blog from Michelle Imison, a Sydney-based international development consultant, on her recent experience as an election monitor in Myanmar. We are very grateful that Michelle was able to respond to our request to share her first hand experience of this historic event.
On Sunday, 8 November Myanmar’s general election was run and, although not yet officially won, the process itself was remarkably successful. I attended as a member of the Australian election observer mission, a delegation of 40 civil society volunteers under the auspices of Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA and headed by Professor Damien Kingsbury. The EU, the Carter Center, ANFREL (the Asian Network for Free Elections) and various diplomatic missions provided other international observer teams.
Before the election
The planning for, and conduct of, this election had been beset with minor difficulties: well-publicised irregularities in the voter lists, a perception that the Union Election Commission (UEC) – the body overseeing the election process – was close to the currently-governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the disenfranchisement of 4m Rohingya voters, inability of internally-displaced people to vote, suspension of the election in parts of Shan state currently in conflict, a lack of Muslim candidates for either of the major parties (the USDP and the National League for Democracy (NLD)) and a relatively small number of women candidates (800 out of 6000). However, 33.5m people were registered to vote for the upper and lower houses of the national legislature, state and ethnic representatives, and the government had said it would accept the outcome of the poll. The stage was set.
During the election
Polling stations across the country were open between 6am and 4pm, and observers attended from around 5.30am to watch empty ballot boxes being sealed. With a fellow observer, I visited four polling places – one in central Yangon, and three to the north of the city – before returning to our first booth to see the ballots counted. In each place, election staff were efficient and conscientious, and voters queued patiently before casting their ballots. Voter turnout was lower than expected, at around 80 per cent, and wherever we went during the day people were pleased to display their inked little fingers as evidence that they had voted. The count was very transparent, with plenty of people – domestic and international observers, media, citizens and tourists – watching from both inside and outside the polling station, many of them using smart phones to record parts of the process. The Australian mission visited 200 polling stations in six of Myanmar’s states and, despite ‘numerous minor irregularities’, reported no harassment or intimidation of voters, no presence of armed personnel at polling stations and no voters being turned away.
After the election
There remain structural issues in Myanmar’s political process, including the allocation of 25 per cent of seats to the military, the fact that the leader of what appears to be the most popular party (Aung San Suu Kyi of the NLD) is constitutionally prevented from becoming President and the ongoing political role of the military National Defence and Security Council. However, the Australian observer mission concluded that the election was carried out in ‘a generally free manner’ and the results ‘are a legitimate expression of the will of its people’. This would have been unthinkable only a few years ago; indeed, the NLD boycotted the 2010 election and Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest at the time. While people somewhat anxiously await the final results, which may be delayed several more days – a consequence of multiple layers of vote-counting and tabulation – they are generally pleased at how the election unfolded. It’s worth noting that the 350 international observers at this election were vastly outnumbered by the 12 000 domestic observers. While we were able to provide an extra level of verification for the process their presence was robust evidence of local ‘investment’ in this important step in Myanmar’s political development.
All quotes are from the preliminary report of the Australia Myanmar Election Observer Mission 2015. Michelle Imison is a Sydney-based international development consultant.