Move affects disenfranchised minorities, including Christians
A soldier with the Kachin Independence Army overlooks a Myanmar army position in this May 2012 photo. Election authorities say the Nov. 8 vote will be canceled in 400 villages, many of them in conflict areas. (Photo by Patrick Bodenham/AFP)
Thousands of villagers in the heavily Christian areas of Kachin and Karen states in Myanmar will be unable to vote in the country's November elections due to security concerns — putting a dent in the number of seats that ethnic-based parties can win in the highly anticipated polls.
Myanmar's Union Election Commission announced Oct. 13 that the election will not be held in as many as 400 villages, as the poll would not be "free and fair." However, the commission didn't elaborate on the reasons for cancelation.
The decision to cancel elections in some areas affects more than 300 villages in Kachin and Karen states. In addition, some villages in Bago region and Mon and Shan states will also not hold elections, according to the Oct. 13 announcement.
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Daw Doi Bu, a Baptist from Kachin state and a lower house lawmaker, said the poll cancelations in her area largely affect villages controlled by the Kachin Independence Army, the rebel group that has been fighting government forces for control over parts of the state.
"It is losing the right to vote in the villages that are under [the Kachin Independence Army]," she said. "The people from the conflict areas are in the [displacement] camps but it remains unclear how displaced people will be able to vote."
Daw Doi Bu, who is running with the Kachin-based Unity and Democracy Party, said the decision is directly tied to the controversial nationwide ceasefire pact, scheduled to be signed Oct. 15.
Eight rebel groups have agreed to sign on, but not the Kachin Independence Army, which has seen ongoing clashes with the military since the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire in 2011.
Mg Mg Naing, a senior official with the election commission in Karen state, confirmed that there are cancelations in his jurisdiction, but said he could not verify the number of people affected because most of the villages would not have been included in an initial voters' list.
"We canceled [voting] in some villages in Karen state due to security conditions," he said.
The right to vote
Ethnic-based parties have hoped to make inroads in the Nov. 8 elections. Some observers believe that the smaller ethnic parties could collectively play an influential role in a future parliament expected to be dominated by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.
The decision to cancel the election in many ethnic villages, then, will pose a challenge to smaller parties in ethnic regions.
Saw Ye Win Naing, a Buddhist politician running for an upper house seat with the Karen Democratic Party, blasted the decision to cancel the vote in so many Karen villages.
"We have already made campaigns in those areas and the cancelations have largely impacted our supporters and our ethnic voting," Saw Ye Win Naing said.
Daw Naw Lar Khu, a Christian running for a lower house seat with the same party, said that while the cancelation does not affect her own constituency, it will be a major blow to her party and ethnic voters in general.
"Most ethnic people vote for ethnic parties so we can say that it impacts the voting rights of ethnic voters," Daw Naw Lar Khu told ucanews.com.
The move by the election commission came amid reports that authorities were considering postponing the vote nationwide. However, officials said late on Oct. 13 that the election would go ahead as planned in the rest of the country.
In September, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon stressed the importance of voting, calling it a "fundamental right in a democracy."
"The system that has been ruled by old elites didn't bring any change," Cardinal Bo said at the time. "So people need to be aware of who will bring real change."
This story has been updated.
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