9 things a Canadian expat would notice about the Burmese elections

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Happening Now Tuesday, February 02, 2016 View Count = 3181

9 things a Canadian expat would notice about the Burmese elections

burma(Photo courtesy of BBC World News)

This is a guest blog written by Trina Isakson. Scroll to the bottom to read her full bio.

In 2015 I had the pleasure of being a part of two elections: the Canadian federal election, and the one in Myanmar, where I’m living for 6 months to do research on civil society (aka the nonprofit sector). What do the recent national elections in Canada and Myanmar/Burma* have in common? Quite a lot actually. While the two countries are at very different stages in their democracy, I have been struck by many similarities between our national votes. 

#1 The importance of volunteers and civil society
I am passionate about volunteerism and civil society; these topics are the focus of my research and strategy work both in Myanmar and back home in Canada. So the high involvement of volunteers and civil society in the elections in Myanmar has been exciting to watch.

Large numbers of local community based organizations have been doing voter education, conducting train-the-trainer workshops, and participating as Election Day observers (my host organization included). Civil society is also increasingly using its voice to speak up on public policy issues. And volunteers have been the bedrock of political party campaigns and the running of polling stations. Volunteers made the election an active and successful one.

#2 The role of digital media in elections is rising...
First, some context about the quick rise of digital media here. Smart phones and social media have literally blasted off over the past five years. In 2010, a SIM card for a mobile phone cost $5,000, out of the range of the vast majority of citizens. SIM cards are now less than $2 and take 2 minutes to set up, and mobile data costs under $3 for 500 MB. In urban areas, smart phones are ubiquitous, and Facebook is the social network of choice. 

During the election period and on voting day, citizens used social media and hashtags to draw attention to the election (#MyanmarVotes), important issues (e.g. #LetRohingyaVote), and to highlight suspicious polling station activity (by tagging international organizations). Local election observers also used the Kyeet monitoring app to report issues on voting day. Campaigns used social media to get out the word. Citizens shared news articles with friends. While the use of social media in elections is new to Myanmar, it is an established practice in Canada.

#3 ..but it still doesn’t beat door knocking
Effective political campaigns mobilize people on the ground and knock on doors. Some candidates have been asked by their party to stop doing public rallies, and do more door knocking. Get Out The Vote efforts are a special tradition in democratic countries like Canada, and are important part of democratic elections in Myanmar as well.

#4 The continuing rise of women
While still inadequately low, the number of women candidates and their experiences on the campaign trail have been a point here in the news. The area I live in (Mon state, in the south east) has a party focussed exclusively on women’s issues: Women’s Party (Mon). And the party slated to take the majority of seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament (NLD) is led by long time democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. However, there is still much more room for women to contribute to political leadership in Myanmar, just as Canada still has work to do to achieve better gender representation in its governing bodies.

#5 Claims of media bias
As in many democratic countries, different local media outlets favour different parties. Myanmar Institute Democracy conducted a media analysis of election reporting in Myanmar and found that state media disproportionately supported the ruling party USDP while independent media disproportionately favoured the opposition NLD. (International media was found to be fairly balanced.)

#6 Frustrations at polling stations
Many people showed up at polling stations and were turned away, or were frustrated in getting their names of voter lists (i.e. registering in advance, a requirement here unlike Canada). This is a bigger issue in Myanmar, but both countries can do better to ensure citizens who want to vote are able to do so.

#7 First past the post; party not candidates
As both countries use FPTP, the final tally of seats will not match the proportion of votes cast (also because 25% of seats in the Myanmar parliament are appointed by the military). Aung San Suu Kyi asked citizens to vote for the party, not the local candidate before the election. As seen by the broad change in representation in some historically safe ridings, the same is true in Canada.

#8 Religion as an election issue
While Buddhism is definitely the dominant religion, there is a strong component of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian citizens here, and citizens generally live in peace as neighbours. However, anti-Muslim sentiment here is growing, especially among hardline extreme monks. As my colleagues here say, it is a very sensitive topic. Neither of the two main parties fielded a Muslim candidate, and many Muslim people have been barred from voting. A group of embassies (including Canada’s) released a joint statement with concern about "the prospect of religion being used as a tool of division." Myanmar can do more to build an inclusive society and politics, and so can Canada. 

#9 A red wave and a peaceful transition?
Both elections saw a “red wave” change in government and I am hopeful that Myanmar, like Canada, will witness a peaceful transition of power. The NLD has taken a majority of the available seats not held for the military and will therefore be in a position to choose the next president. Unlike in 1990, the current ruling party has conceded defeat, and seems likely to support a peaceful transition (though as of November 18, transition talks have been postponed). The people of Myanmar (and I) are optimistic.

It's definitely a bit surreal to be in Myanmar at this point in its democratic transition. However, I don't think the full reality of this election will sink in until a decade or two from now where I and the world can see it in the context of a generational shift. How will history view this time? 

Perhaps in the short term, local community organizations that I work with will see differences in their relationships with local authorities and the central government. Perhaps the issues that civil society wishes to influence--human rights, environmental protection, peacebuilding, and food security among many others--will see change at a more rapid pace. Perhaps activists will operate less covertly. Or, perhaps the constitutional constraints that still exist will continue to hold Myanmar back.

Regardless of the outcomes, the inputs from the people inspire me. I truly believe in the power of citizens to create the change they wish to see and I've seen it in action here. Rallies, parades, voter education, election monitoring, media relations, online advocacy, offline conversations...citizens here are both participating in democracy and creating democracy in real time. That's powerful stuff. Seriously, when's the last time you saw an hour-long parade going through a rural town, with thousands of people lined up along the roadside, for an election

In my last three months here, I'll continue to watch the post-election period play out as the transitions of power happens, a new president is selected, and my research with community organizations plays out. And I'll continue to reflect on what I saw here and how it translates to civic engagement back home. 

*Burma or Myanmar? Within the country here, ‘Myanmar’ is the norm (and because of this I use Myanmar out of habit). Outside the country, many people use ‘Burma’. Burma was the name used by colonial British before independence in 1947. Myanmar is the name used by the military junta after the coup in 1962. The Government of Canada uses ‘Burma’. Many democracy activists use ‘Burma’. You'll see both in international media.

Trina portraitTrina Isakson is an independent researcher and strategist who usually works on issues facing the Canadian nonprofit sector. She was a juror for the 2015 #EPcitizen contest and was on the 2013 #EPcitizen shortlist. Trina is in Myanmar for a 6 month volunteer research placement through Cuso International. Find her online at @telleni and trinaisakson.com

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