Human Rights Watch urges Myanmar to safeguard minority voters’ rights

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Myanmar’s Union Election Commission has made critical decisions without meaningful transparency that will affect the November 8, 2020 election in many ethnic minority areas, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday. The decision-making process of the commission, which canceled voting in 15 townships and parts of 42 others, was not public and did not involve meaningful consultation with political parties, candidates, or local organizations.

On October 16, the election commission, citing security concerns, announced whole or partial cancellations in constituencies in Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan States, and the Bago Region. On October 27, the commission also added 94 village tracts in Paletwa township, Chin State, to the list of areas where voting is suspended. As a result, over 1.5 million people will not be able to exercise their right to vote.

“The Union Election Commission is making decisions affecting people’s right to choose their representatives without an iota of transparency,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Myanmar’s election commission needs to fully explain the basis for its decisions on each of the affected townships, which affect the voting rights of 1.5 million largely ethnic minority people.”

On October 20, the election commission said during a news conference in Naypyitaw, the capital, that its decision to cancel voting in parts of the country was based on recommendations by the government, the Defense and Home Affairs Ministries, the military, and the police. However, the commission did not provide information on the criteria it used.

The Union Election Commission should clearly explain the basis for determining that voting cannot take place in each area cited. It should consult with candidates and political parties in these constituencies to seek solutions that will uphold people’s right to participate in democratic elections, including through delayed voting, Human Rights Watch said.

The election commission has not offered an alternative date or means to cast ballots. Under Myanmar’s election rules, by-elections may only take place after the first year of a government’s term. Since the government elected in November will only take office at the start of April 2021, this means affected seats in parliament will remain empty until at least 2022. Elections must be held for those canceled election seats no later than the start of the government’s final year in office but only if the commission deems it safe.

While armed conflict has destabilized many parts of Rakhine State, the commission’s inclusion of areas where conflict is limited, including significant parts of Shan, Kachin, Karen, and Mon States, and the Bago Region, raises concerns about the commission’s criteria for canceling elections. At the same time, there are concerns about elections going forward in some areas that have a high level of conflict or that have experienced security issues, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition to cancellations in Paletwa township in Chin State, the election commission on October 27 added wards and village tracts for suspension in Kyaukphyu and Ann townships in Rakhine State, and Muse, Lashio, and Kunlong townships in Shan State. The commission also reinstated a small number of wards and villages where voting could proceed, after citing satisfaction with requests for reconsideration by the relevant sub-commissions and ministries in those areas.

On October 18, five ethnic political parties released a joint statement calling for the election committee to revise its list. The Kachin State People’s Party, Kayah State Democratic Party, Karen National Democratic Party, Chin National League for Democracy, and Mon Unity Party alleged that the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) was blocking votes in constituencies that are dominated by ethnic parties. Canceling the voting in wide swathes of ethnic areas denies people justice, equality, and the right to vote, the statement said. The parties also said that the election commission’s decision could inadvertently prompt violence and further fuel armed conflict.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that “every citizen shall have the right and opportunity” without discrimination or “unreasonable restrictions” to “vote and be elected at genuine periodic elections … guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.” These rights are recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is broadly reflective of customary international law.

In 2015, voting was also canceled in parts of the Bago Region, and Kachin, Karen, Mon, and Shan States. The NLD won a landslide victory in those elections but fared badly in Rakhine and Shan States.

In 2020, cancellations in Rakhine State account for up to 1.2 million disenfranchised voters, not including the 600,000 ethnic Rohingya who remain barred from voting. Of the nine townships where voting is suspended in Rakhine State, seven are held by the ethnic Arakan National Party and two by the military-backed United Solidarity Party. Similarly in Kachin and Shan States, elections are called off in constituencies that were won in 2015 by mainly ethnic parties.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has noted that international human rights law “does not impose any particular electoral system,” but it sets out voting rights and nondiscrimination obligations. In its general comment on the right to vote, the committee stated that governments are obligated to take “effective measures to ensure that all persons entitled to vote are able to exercise that right.” Governments are expected to address “factors which impede citizens from exercising the right to vote and the positive measures which have been adopted to overcome these factors.”

“While parts of Myanmar are facing serious security problems, the authorities should do all they can so that eligible voters can cast their ballots,” Robertson said. “The Union Election Commission should consult with political parties and local groups in affected areas to validate the security concerns and consider options that would safeguard people’s right to vote.”

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