Asian Electoral Stakeholders Forum 5 was hosted online this year on 20-21 October 2021. There were four panel discussions on (1) addressing electoral challenges and democratic backsliding in Asia, (2) success stories of holding elections during COVID-19, (3) promoting electoral reforms through cooperation between EMBs and CSOs, and (4) improving electoral integrity using technology and open data.
The memorandum – The Way Forward for Elections Beyond the Covid-19 Pandemic (click to view), was adopted by consensus at the end of the forum. It is hoped that this memo can guide election stakeholders, such as election management bodies, civil society organisations and observer groups, to strive to improve electoral processes in their respective countries in pursuit of genuine democracy.
You pause before picking up a call from an unknown phone number. You’re ready to change plans in a second, if explosions occur in your area or soldiers show up. When going out, you may delete the Facebook app from your phone, lest you get stopped by soldiers wanting to check your posts. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, you look for an antigen test kit before trying to get an RT-PCR test or go to hospital.
These are among the survival skills that many people in Myanmar are using these days, six months after the February military coup. Hypervigilance has become routine.
Anxiety is never too far away as they make their way through layer upon layer of crises – the political crisis sparked by the military’s ouster of the elected government on Feb 1, the economy’s breakdown amid rising poverty, and a third COVID-19 wave surging in the wake of a collapsed system for delivering public services.
“I always feel insecure wherever I go,” said one resident of Yangon, the commercial capital of this country of over 57 million people. “I dare not bring my phone because I’m scared when I hear that security forces are checking mobile phones, and they also take money. So I never take much money if I go out.”
“I’m also insecure at home because they (soldiers) can check any time and they take whatever they want,” she added.
“There are lots of things to care about when you go outside, not only the COVID third wave but also explosions, people in uniform,” agreed one artist. “Our daily lives are different compared to before, due to COVID and the coup – double trouble – in terms of work security, safety, unemployment.”
Locals say the price of some goods and medicines, food items have risen by 20 to 40%. Worries abound about the latest harvest and future ones, because farmers (80% are small farmers) depend on credit from the state and fertiliser prices have shot up by 50%. Fuel prices are reported to have nearly doubled since February.
Power outages are worrisome amid a pandemic that sees daily new cases at 4,000-5,000 and over 300 deaths daily. Cases are under-reported as testing is severely limited, and infectivity is very high: 37% of COVID-19 tests were positive, as of Jul 22. Only Mexico’s 38.1% is higher in the One World in Data global tracker.
Cash is a precious commodity, one that can be received after shelling out 6-10% commission fees to brokers and mobile apps. “Wasting our money in these horrible times” is how the owner of a small business puts it. Access to cash has become better in some cases, but long queues are common and limits on cash withdrawals remain.
Even as the pandemic rages – and has affected its ranks – Myanmar’s military has continued to arrest anti-coup protesters, those who have stayed with the civil disobedience movement that started right after the coup.
“Now I’m afraid of going outside and I dare not pick up calls from unknown people,” said one schoolteacher who continues to stay away from her work with the government. “I’m also afraid to answer calls because some officers in our department threaten and force (us) to go back to work. And I’m always afraid of the informers and spies of the military.”
For many, there is too much of the military’s presence in their lives, but too little, or none, of public governance in this catastrophe unfolding in their midst.“It is estimated that up to 90% of national government activity has ceased,” the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said in its June report on the economic fallout and food insecurity in Myanmar since the coup.
As they have learned to do under past periods of military rule, Myanmar’s people are turning to one another, forming networks of their own, to survive.
Communities have been arranging donation drives for those who have lost relatives to the pandemic or are taking care of the sick, and others who are in self-isolation. Volunteers are still driving patients to hospitals, which have run out of beds. Online groups help track supplies of medical oxygen amid the ongoing scarcity. Many share what income they make with the jobless.
“As the third wave of COVID-19 outbreak struck and strict containment measures were reimposed, an even worse scenario could unfold, with poverty levels in 2022 rising to well over twice as high as they were in 2019 (22.4% in 2018/19), wiping out gains of over a decade of poverty reduction progress,” the World Bank said.
The same report said one million jobs could be lost in 2021 out of a labour force of some 25 million – and this figure excludes workers in the huge informal economy. Already, the International Labour Organization says, 3.1 million full-time equivalent jobs have been lost due to COVID-19 and containment measures.
Migrant workers and those overseas are finding it harder, and often more expensive, to send money into Myanmar, through informal channels. More than 10 million people cite remittances as an income source, says the WFP, and 40% of remittances come from abroad.
Half of households have reported cutting consumption, including food, the World Bank said. Up to 3.4 million more people are at risk of food insecurity, on top of the 2.8 million who were not getting enough food before the coup, the WFP said in its June situation report.
Many pin hopes on the National Unity Government that was formed on Apr 16. With 16 ministers apart from a prime minister, the government-in-exile reports on meetings with foreign diplomats and parliamentarians, sends officials to speak at webinars. But it is struggling to gain international recognition and faces challenges around having its decisions actually carried out inside the country.
As COVID-19 took a turn for the worse in June, its health ministry opened a telemedicine channel on Facebook and formed a national committee with the health organizations of several ethnic groups, but a mechanism for a pandemic response is unclear.
“I would like to appeal to all the people of Myanmar to continue the fight bravely with the spirit of victory in mind,” said Mahn Wann Khaing Thann, NUG prime minister. “When we succeed, our government will repay and work for the establishment of a Federal Democratic Union that all people aspire to.”
THE PRESENT MOMENT
But it is the here and now that people live in – and like the COVID-19 pandemic, an end to the crisis is not within sight.
“We only have ourselves,” said a Yangon resident. “We have to take care, as much as we can, of food, medicine, oxygen, and other basic needs. The authorities can’t do anything. Unfortunately, it’s like we are waiting for the day we die.”
“I can’t sleep well at night,” confided another local. “Most of my family members are jobless right now. Even though I save money, not spending spend much money, I’m afraid that one day, I won’t be able to make it.”
(*This feature is part of the ‘Lens Southeast Asia’ series of Reporting ASEAN, supported by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.)
We have extracted some interesting excerpts from UN Human Rights – Civil Society Weekly Update 47 (2020):
We are pleased to share with you a set of indicators developed by the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association, M. Clément Voule, which were launched on the 7th month anniversary of the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic by WHO. These indicators aim to measure State’s compliance with international standards regarding civic space, peaceful assembly, and political participation during public health emergencies. These indicators are available in the following formats:
2) An online survey (in ENGLISH, FRENCH and SPANISH). Field presences and civil society can carry out their assessment online and share their results with the Special Rapporteur preferably before 30 November 2020. The results of this survey will be fed into the preparation of a dedicated report on “protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests during crisis situations”, which the Special Rapporteur was tasked with by Resolution A/HRC/44/L.11 adopted at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council. This report will be presented to the HRC in June 2022.
In its Resolution 44/7, the Human Rights Council requested the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to consult Member States and other relevant stakeholders in order to prepare and submit to its forty-seventh session an analytical study on the promotion and the protection of the rights of older persons in the context of climate change. Accordingly, we would welcome your inputs to the study by e-mail to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org by no later than 31 December 2020. We would also welcome your kind assistance in circulating this call for inputs as widely as possible within your networks. In formulating inputs, you are welcome to respond, as appropriate, to the attached questionnaire. For environmental considerations, electronic submissions are encouraged and we ask that responses not exceed five pages. Please submit contributions in MS Word or compatible format in either of the official working languages of the United Nations (French or English). Inputs received will be posted on our website.
We are pleased to share a publication published by the Penang Institute. The “Human Rights Derogations in Southeast Asian Countries during the Covid-19 Pandemic” was written by Braema Mathiaparanam(Visiting Senior Research Fellow, History and Regional Studies Programme).
The ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights has issued a statement of concern and has reminded governments to continue observing human rights during the pandemic, and that even if some rights have to be restricted, this should not be done disproportionately.
All members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have pre-existing forms of restriction on the freedom of expression and press freedom as well as censorship, which intensified in this pandemic.
It is challenging to contain Covid-19 infections while ensuring that human rights are not derogated. However, the lockdown measures imposed in some countries in Southeast Asia during the containment period became opportunities to intimidate, detain and arrest opposition party members, activists and journalists.
Countries have also taken a strict stance on fake news and disinformation, leading to many arrests across countries. Increased surveillance was also used to track threats to authority figures and the government, alongside gaining evidence on criminal activities such as drug-trafficking and money laundering.
Certain communities were overlooked in government policies and assistance especially in terms of food and supply, economic aid and information sharing. Prisons and detention centres are overcrowded, leading to more outbreaks of Covid-19 infections.
Countries have national, regional and international obligations and responsibilities that they have agreed to and breaches of these state obligations need to be addressed, especially when the actions taken cannot be justified even as emergency measures.
Covid-19 will not be the last crisis, and governments can use lessons learnt from Covid-19 to improve their responses for the next crisis and take counter-measures that also adhere to human rights principles.
This report documents structural flaws that potentially prevent elections from being free and fair in Singapore. On page 22 of the report, APHR also makes certain recommendations to safeguard Singaporeans’ right to a free and fair election. These include:
Give significantly longer notice for election dates and more campaigning time to ensure an equal electoral competition and for voters to make their opinions;
Replacing the GRC system with one that ensures better respect for the principle of “one person, one vote”;
Immediately amend or repeal all laws that restrict the rights to freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly in Singapore; and
Delay the general election unless additional measures are taken to: ensure all eligible voters are able to vote, including the sick and those abroad; and ensure that opposition parties are able to campaign on an equal footing with PAP.
MARUAH submitted the following letter to the Forum Page of the Straits Times on 29 April 2020 in response to reports of Members of Parliament doing walkabouts in Channel News Asia. It has yet to be published.
I refer to reports of Members of Parliament doing walkabouts in Channel News Asia (MP Seah Kian Peng explains visit to market after Facebook post on ‘playing role of safe distancing ambassador’; 27th April) and The Straits Times (MP Chia Shi-Lu responds to criticism of Sunday walkabout; 14th April).
The MPs, from Marine Parade GRC and Tanjong Pagar GRC, were reported as saying that they were doing their walkabout to find out how people were coping and to encourage compliance to orders under the Circuit Breaker which was ordered on April 3rd and went into effect on April 8th. New laws – the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 and The Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Control Order) Regulations 2020 – were put into place to give clarity on measures, on enforcements and on penalties. The PAP suspended the Meet-the-People’s sessions between MPs and residents on April 13th. These measures were also introduced at various stages by the multi-task force dealing with containment of Covid-19 infections and treatment of cases. Much education on safety and prevention had also been taking place, frequently, by staff, volunteers and the media.
By the laws enacted MPs’ work are not listed as essential service providers (https://covid.gobusiness.gov.sg/essentialservices/). These are provided for by front liners, healthcare workers on the ground, civil service officers, counsellors and support officers from various sectors and communities. There is also a website on legal and assistance measures for affected persons, during this challenging time (https://www.mlaw.gov.sg/news/press-releases/2020-04-20-covid-19-temporary-measures-act-provisions-relating-to-temporary-reliefs-to-commence-on-20-april-2020).
As such, one is hard-pushed to appreciate this extra support from the MPs at this time, putting at risk the containment efforts and themselves in flouting the Covid-19( Temporary Measures) Act 2020. Various members of the public and migrant workers who had been caught flouting this law, have been arrested, charged and most have been fined or errant migrant workers had work passes, revoked. Others , who posted on social media their activities that showed them breaking the law, were investigated and where appropriate, charged.
It is heartening, that yesterday ( April 28th) in Malaysia, two political leaders – the Deputy Health Minister and Perak’s executive council member – were both fined RM1,000 for violating Rule 6(1) of the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases ( Measures Within the Infected Local Areas) Regulations 2020 under Malaysia’s Movement Control Order that began on March 18th. They had said earlier, they were visiting a health clinic to check on Covid-19 preparations in the area, had adjourned for prayers and later a meal. The politicians, who apologised, and their supporters were charged as their services were not essential.
No one is baying for blood here. But there cannot be a silence. There has been no clarification or course of action from the Ministry of Law, Ministry of Home Affairs, The Attorney-General’s Office or the Prime Minister’s Office. If a wrong has been done, the law applies equally, to anyone and everyone. And if there is no wrong done, the explanations given by the MPs – as it has been with others who were arrested and charged – must either be officially accepted or rejected.
Organised by MARUAH with technical support provided by Shape SEA
Please check back this post over the next couple of days as we upload additional presentation material.
Labour Day is special to all of us, as workers.
Have a Meaningful Labour Day as we remember those who have lost jobs, our dedicated front liners, all essential workers, healthcare workers and support staff, NGOs, union leaders, the civil service officers, multi-Ministry task force, government leaders and international leaders all and you and me…
Why meaningful? These are uneasy times, also very special as it makes us understand more on the types of jobs and the workers. What are the new norms? How do we value the work of each other? The invisibility of so many workers, some whom we have overlooked.
Thank you for your interest and time.
A Meaningful Ramadan to all Muslim views and to many Migrant Workers who are Muslims too.