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Myanmar’s election fever raises risks of Covid-19 infections

Opposition parties have called for a postponement but the election commission insists the polls will go ahead on Nov. 8

John Zaw, Mandalay

John Zaw, Mandalay

Published: October 20, 2020 07:32 AM GMT

Updated: October 20, 2020 09:20 AM GMT

Myanmar’s election fever raises risks of Covid-19 infections

Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy campaign in Patheingyi township on the outskirts of Mandalay, on Oct. 15. (UCA News Photo)

While healthcare workers deal with rising cases of Covid-19 second wave at the front line, thousands of supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party are going around towns defying restrictions related to the virus.

The line-up of cars which have stickers of Suu Kyi’s picture, vote NLD and red flags, and some people who don't wear face masks were seen going around Mandalay, the second-largest city of Myanmar, on Oct. 17.

On the same day, thousands of supporters on motorcycles, three-wheeled rickshaws, and cars went around Pathein in the Irrawaddy division to show support for the ruling party.

The Union Election Commission (UEC) ordered restrictions on election campaigns including banning rallies and mass meetings, and the NLD has urged the public to stay at home and obey guidelines from health officials.

Thousands of people, however, are still showing their support on the streets in several cities in one of the poorest countries in the world, where health care is overwhelmed.

Health care workers have raised concerns about the so-called election fever as the nation has yet to contain the outbreak since locally transmitted cases were reported in mid-August.

Dr. Zaw Wai Soe, the vice-chair of the Yangon Region Coordination on Disease Control and Treatment Committed, said they are waging a war against the second wave of the contagion.

“Waving flags with different colors on the streets makes healthcare workers wave ‘white’ flags,” said Dr. Myint Myint Sein, a frontline medical worker who was also infected with Covid-19.

The 24 opposition parties have called for a postponement but officials from the UEC insist that the election will go ahead on Nov. 8.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has observed two times about the practice of casting ballots in polling stations under health care guidelines in Naypyitaw, the remote capital of Myanmar.

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She acknowledged the country is facing major challenges but said the election is an opportunity for the people in the country.

Myanmar is considered among the most vulnerable countries in Southeast Asia along with Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste, according to a UN report.

Myanmar reported 1,150 new cases on Oct. 18, bringing the total to 36,125 with 880 deaths and 17,076 recoveries.

According to the latest data, more than 1,113,000 people have died out of nearly 40 million confirmed cases worldwide.

Fundamentally flawed

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Myanmar’s electoral process is undermined by systemic problems and rights abuses that will deprive people of their right to fairly elect their government.

Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, said it’s a milestone for Myanmar to be holding a second multiparty election, but however long the lines are to vote, this election will be fundamentally flawed.

“The election can’t be free and fair so long as a quarter of the seats are reserved for the military, access to state media isn’t equal, government critics face censorship or arrest, and Rohingya are denied participation in the vote,” Adams said in an Oct. 5 statement.

HRW said the government is using the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law and the Election Law to disenfranchise Rohingya and prevent them from running for office, even though most Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations.

The authorities have barred most Rohingya remaining in Myanmar, estimated at 600,000, from registering to vote in the election including around 130,000 Rohingya people, who are confined in camps in central Rakhine since 2012.

At least six Rohingya candidates have been rejected by the election commission from taking part in Nov. 8 polls on the ground that their parents were not citizens when they were born.

Voting cancelled in most townships

Election officials announced on Oct. 16 that several townships in Rakhine, Kachin, Karen, Shan and Bago regions will not be included in the vote on security grounds.

Among the cancelled areas, most townships in conflict-torn Rakhine are included where the Arakan National Party has wide support.

The election commission said some areas “are not in a position to hold a free and fair election.”

Rakhine has been beset by renewed conflict between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army since December 2018 that has led to civilian casualties including children and thousands being displaced.

Last week, three candidates from the NLD were abducted in Rakhine while they were campaigning.

Five ethnic-based political parties from Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin and Mon states have called for reconsideration of the cancellation of voting as it undermines equality and the voting rights of ethnic people.

“It questions the credibility and fairness of the Nov. 8 election and also raises questions about the independence, transparency and dignity of the Union Election Commission,” the parties said in a statement on Oct. 18.

Some 92 parties are vying for 1,171 seats in the upper and lower houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures in the Nov. 8 polls that observers see as a test of Myanmar’s democratic reforms.

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