Myanmar diaspora cast advance votes for November polls

Preeti JHA
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Myanmar nationals living in Thailand queue up before casting their vote for the November 8 election, in Bangkok on October 17, 2015

Myanmar nationals living in Thailand queue up before casting their vote for the November 8 election, in Bangkok on October 17, 2015 (AFP Photo/Christophe Archambault )

Myanmar'sdiaspora cast advance votes Saturday for November polls in the former junta-ruled nation in countries ranging from neighbouring Thailand to Singapore, but only a fraction of its overseas nationals are registered to vote.

Advance voting for the general election, heralded as the freest in decades, kicked off Thursday in Singapore and South Korea, as anticipation builds for the November 8 polls.

Yet despite the millions-strong diaspora, who for generations have escaped poverty and repression at home in search of work abroad, only around 30,000 are registered to vote in 37 countries.

At midday on Saturday just a few dozen Myanmar nationals were lined up to cast ballots outside their embassy in the financial district of Bangkok.

Yet Thailand is home to an estimated three million Myanmar workers -- with and without legal permits -- who prop up vast and lucrative sectors spanning from seafood to construction.

Several excited nationals arrived to find their names were not on the voter lists posted outside.

"I wanted to vote for the NLD," domestic helper Romar Thapa, 27, told AFP, adding she was unsure why her registration had failed.

Like many others who turned back disappointed she came to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy, which is billed to sweep the upcoming polls.

A wish to secure a landmark victory drew out many in Singapore on Saturday where advance voting entered a third day.

"I've been queueing since 4 am this morning," said electrical engineer Aung Si Thu, 29.

He was among some 2,000 Myanmar nationals waiting for a token Saturday evening to vote next week as the advanced ballot in the city-state was extended by three days due to the large turnout.

"One sleepless night is worth the trouble" to vote in this election, said the NLD supporter who will be back on Monday.

- Making votes count -

There are an estimated 100,000 Myanmar citizens -- from maids to students and professionals -- in Singapore, which is believed to host the lion's share of registered voters for the November polls.

Photographs of Myanmar nationals sleeping overnight Friday outside their embassy in preparation to vote were being widely shared on Facebook.

The November polls are set to crown four years of unprecedented reform in a nation driven into isolation by nearly half a century of repressive military rule.

But there have been mounting concerns that reforms are backsliding, and the NLD -- set to contest its first nationwide election in 25 years -- has raised concerns about the error-riddled electoral roll.

The party won 1990 elections, but the results were ignored by the then junta, and boycotted flawed 2010 polls which returned the military-backed party to power.

Fewer advance votes would penalise Suu Kyi's party, according to Khin Zaw Win of the Tampadipa Institute, a Yangon-based political think-tank, as overseas voters "tend to vote for the NLD".

"We've never seen anything like this before," he said of the voters clamouring to cast a ballot in Singapore.

"They want to make sure their votes are going to count," he said.

Earlier this week Myanmar's Union Election Commission said only 561 people were registered for the vote in Thailand.

Myanmar migrants in the kingdom were one of the first ports of call for Suu Kyi when she visited Thailand in 2012, her first trip abroad in 24 years after repeated periods of house arrest.

Khin Zaw Win said the lower Bangkok turnout was likely down to the poorer Myanmar migrant workforce in Thailand which is spread across the country while more educated nationals in smaller Singapore tended to be better- informed about the election.

On Friday the UEC requested overseas voters to "be patient with inconveniences".

"It is a huge task for Myanmar embassies to arrange convenient advance voting abroad due to weak experience in holding elections and limited staff at the embassies," it admitted, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported.