Myanmar Watch: the Road to Election 2015

Myanmar Watch: The Road to Election 2015

Chuthaporn Suntayakorn

Dr. Piratorn Punyaratabandhu

Dr. Napisa Waitoolkiat

Photo courtesy of oxlaey.com

Myanmar will hold its general elections on 8th November 2015. The November general elections will mark a significant step for Myanmar’s democratization given that they are the first open elections in almost three decades since the 1990 general election. Although these general elections are highly welcomed among Myanmar people as well as the international community, the main concern remains to what extent will the elections proceed in a free and fair manner? How do we know that the Myanmar military would not get in the way of having free/fair elections? Will the persistence of military control and “disciplined democracy” in Myanmar be a foregone conclusion despite the country’s general elections on November 8th? In other words, the smoothness of Myanmar’s democratization in the context of its 2015 elections remains to be seen.

As part of research plans of the College of ASEAN Community Studies (CACS), Naresuan University, the Myanmar Watch examines socio-economic and political aspects of Myanmar continuing development. To this end, the project at hand offers a preliminary survey report led by the research team of CACS. It seeks a deeper understanding of perceptions about Myanmar economic migrants (living in Phitsanulok) towards the November 2015 elections. The objective of this project is twofold: to comprehend Burmese economic migrants’ perceptions towards the general elections; to identify and assess the prospect of these Burmese migrants in returning home (Myanmar) due to the impact of the elections on their future. The project focuses on the central urban area in Phitsanulok province where a Muslim Burmese community is located. The team conducted in-depth interviews of 21 Muslim Burmese economic migrants regarding their perception of the November General Elections in Myanmar. These 21 participants are Muslim Burmese, aged between 20-50 years, and mostly self-employed. They receive an income of 300 Thai Baht per day (approximately $8.50 per day). Within these 21 participants, 9 of them are females while 12 participants are male. The project team focuses on two key aspects of these economic migrants in the context of the upcoming elections: value attribution and voting participation.  Please note that our findings do not represent the voices of other Burmese migrant minorities who live in Thailand in other geographical areas such as Mae Sod (Tak), Mahachai (Samut Sakorn), Ranong. 

General Elections 2015 and Value Attribution

The project team found that male participants have knowledge about the upcoming election while only some female participants have heard about the election.  With respect to types of media that participants use in order to receive information or news about the election, their responses were quite diverse. 

There are three major ways that the migrants used to gain access to news/information about the 2015 election.  These included Thai television, Thai radio (both national and local), social media, and friends and family.  Interestingly, the project team found that the age factor determines types of communication media used among Burmese migrants to gain access to news about the election and other aspects of Myanmar politics. The younger generation disproportionally relies on social media (e.g. Facebook, internet) while older ones use traditional media including Thai television and radio.

Another interesting finding is that gender is associated with levels of political knowledge. All male participants have knowledge about the upcoming election while some female participants are not aware of the event.

Besides voting attribution, the project team examined levels of political participation among participants. There were some mixed responses. While both female and male participants have a strong intention to vote, they are not ready to sacrifice their current economic welfare and safety enjoyed in Thailand for their political beliefs.  In other words, they would rather give up their ideological beliefs or political rights than their economic and personal security.  Interestingly, some male participants see political exclusion as a major obstacle for their unwillingness to directly participate in the November elections. According to these participants, they cannot register as Burmese citizen since they are Muslim. Thus, deprivation of rights prevents them from fully participating in the elections.

In terms of number of years of Burmese migrants living in Thailand, this factor has no significant effect on voting decisions. All Burmese migrants are reluctant to go back to vote. However, number of years reflects the difference in terms of reasoning among migrants. Both male and female Burmese migrants with a relatively short stay in Thailand (3-5 years) attribute their reluctance to go back to vote in Myanmar to economic and safety rather than political issues. In contrast, those who have stayed in Thailand for more than ten years seem to prioritize political over economic reasons. However, when examining number of years in tandem with gender, the project team found an interesting result. Female migrants pay more attention to economic over political reasons regardless of duration of their residence in Thailand.

With respect to age as influencing voting decisions, age has no impact on their decisions. All Burmese migrants either young or old have no intention to go back to vote in the election. However, interestingly enough, there is a difference in terms of their reasoning. Old economic migrants put emphasis on political reason while young migrants attribute their unwillingness to go back home to vote to economic and safety reasons.

Regarding the leadership selection, all Burmese migrants support Aung San Suu Kyi to be the next president. Yet, the reasons for their preferred candidate are quite diverse based upon gender. Female migrants support Aung San Suu Kyi because of her personal characteristic and those of her family. Meanwhile, male counterparts pay attention not only to Suu Kyi’s personal characteristics but also her leadership role in the international community. Indeed, these male migrants received political information about Suu Kyi through Thai media. In short, female migrants emphasize her perceived personal characteristics including kindness, warmth, motherhood, and fairness, while male migrants seem to view Suu Kyi in connection with bolstering Myanmar’s image within international politics.

Besides the leadership selection, the project team asked the Burmese migrants about the issue of political party selection. The team found an interesting result.  All of them have no knowledge about political parties in Myanmar at all even the National League for Democracy (NLD).  However, they have knowledge about politicians including Suu Kyi and Thein Sein.  Interestingly enough, when asked about the army as an institution, all migrants have enormous knowledge about it.  In other words, Burmese migrants pay more attention to personality over institutions.  And within the institutions, they have more knowledge about non-democratic over democratic institution such as political party.

Impact of General Elections: Future and Hope among Burmese Economic Migrants

This section explores the participants’ perception towards the impact of the 2015 general election on their lives and future plans. The questions are as follows: Does the 2015 election in Myanmar have an impact on their lives in Thailand? If it does, how? What would be their future plans?

Do the 2015 general elections have an effect on their current situation in Thailand?

In answer to these questions, all female participants see that the elections have no effect on their lives in Thailand. However, one female migrant who lived in Thailand for over ten years points out that Thai rather than Myanmar politics would have a significant impact on her life. In contrast, all male counterparts believe that the 2015 election will have a significant impact on their lives. To them, the elections can bring peace and stability to Myanmar if Suu Kyi wins.

With respect to the potential of returning home to Myanmar, the result shows a diverse dichotomy of views between female and male migrants. While the majority of female migrants prefer to stay in Thailand for a higher-paying job and better-living conditions, some of them want to go back to Myanmar because their family members are still living there.

For male counterparts, the majority of them want to go back to Myanmar only if Suu Kyi wins the election. To them, Suu Kyi symbolizes the new hope in that she can bring equality and prosperity to them. However, they have not decided when exactly they would go back. As for the male migrants who do not want to return home, they provided reasoning that was similar to their female counterparts (i.e., better quality of life, safety). However, there was one male participant who regarded weaknesses in political and civil rights in Myanmar as contributing to his unwillingness to return home. To him, a guarantee of equality and rights should be a pre-requisite for the future of Myanmar’s democracy even though Suu Kyi might win the elections.

In conclusion, for over a decade, the Myanmar government has decided to go through major political reforms including releasing thousands of political prisoners, supporting conflict resolution with certain ethnic armies, and holding general elections on 8th November 2015. Although we have yet to see whether the reforms could truly meet the expectations of Myanmar people and the international community, the voice of Muslim Burmese has not been heard across Myanmar’s political landscape. As our pilot project has shown, the election might not change the lives of Muslim Burmese. To our interviewees, the NLD might not necessarily be the vanguard of Muslim Burmese people’s interests.  Indeed, Suu Kyi and her NLD recently announced that it would not allow any Muslim candidates to run under its party banner. Yet this might destroy the hope of Muslim Burmese who have seen Suu Kyi as their democracy icon.  Under these circumstances, they might in future decide to no longer support Suu Kyi as the election would no longer matter to their lives.  Another interesting finding is that those Muslim migrants who support Suu Kyi tend to focus on her personality traits rather than her political institution—the NLD.  This probes an interesting question in that who would eventually replace her when she eventually retires from politics? Will there be a leadership vacuum? Finally, if the NLD continues to ignore them, how would Muslim Burmese in Myanmar cope with the prospect of being a voiceless minority?

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