August 19, 2016

Securing the suffrage of Myanmar’s disabled

SINCE the beginning of the election period, voters across Myanmar, eager to make their votes count, have noisily called attention to the numerous obstacles they still face, including flawed voter lists and distance from polling stations. The challenges facing voters with disabilities, however, have elicited a wholly different response.
“The disabled show no interest in the November 8 general election at a time when the poll is a popular talking point among [able] people around the country,” said U Nay Lin Soe, founder and program director of the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative (MILI), a local non-government organisation working to empower persons with disabilities.
The Global New Light of Myanmar spoke to U Nay Lin Soe about how MILI is working on securing suffrage for people with disabilities.
Q: Why are people with disabilities seemingly uninterested in voting?
A: In the past, people with disabilities were denied the right to vote for various reasons. For instance, they have felt ashamed of their disabilities or they faced restrictions while trying to cast their votes.
The government’s failure to send polling information to the disabled, the lack of easy access to polling stations and the lack of well-trained staff who can explain the voting process to people who are hard of hearing are other hindrances.
Q: How does your organisation work to enfranchise people with disabilities?
A: We are cooperating with the Union Election Commission on ensuring voting rights to the disabled. We have held several discussions with the chairman and members of the commission about the challenges they face and the need for voter education for the disabled. The officials have come to understand the particular issues facing people with disabilities and have shown more interest in them.
Q: How does your organisation draw the attention of people with disabilities and encourage them to vote in the upcoming election?
A: We offered a three-day training course to 20 leaders nationwide. Now, those leaders have opened multiplier courses in their respective townships. The training courses target administrators of village and ward commissions. We found that even officials at the ward and village levels have little knowledge about the election. Some voters themselves have no desire to devote more time to understanding the voting process. Some said they had come to understand it for the first time only after a brief explanation by our group.
We have also scheduled to meet candidates from big political parties in Yangon and Mandalay in mid-October and to hold a forum aimed at ensuring that candidates address the rights of disabled people in parliament.
At the invitation of the UEC, we also offered training to returning officers. We are planning to raise public awareness about the elections with the use of mobile theatres in some townships in Yangon in mid-October, and disabled singers will carry out voter education.
Q: What is your opinion about the involvement of policymakers in promoting the rights of people with disabilities?
A: We are satisfied with the government’s assistance to the disabled to a certain degree.
The government passed the Disabled Rights Law on 5 June, 2015. Chapter 8 of the law describes the involvement of the people with disabilities in political affairs. Section 29 says the disabled have the voting rights, while Section 30 says the disabled have the right to be elected.
The UEC’s strategic plan (2014-2018) includes provisions about easy access to polls by the people with disabilities. But the main law does not include a section on how the government will make the election process accessible to all. For that, we urge the policy makers to include details on accessible election in the rules and regulations.
According to the 2014 nationwide census, Myanmar has a population of more than 2.3 million people with disabilities, accounting for 4.6 percent of the country’s total population of over 51 million. It is estimated that about two-thirds of disabled population are eligible voters.
U Mann Theik Soe, chairman of Mingalardon Township Election Commission said: “There will be 129 polling stations in our township, which will be built within public school campuses. Most of the schools are suitable for persons with disabilities who use wheelchairs or crutches.”
U Pyae Phyo Paing of theMyanmar National Association of the Blind said: “People with impaired vision are likely to cast advance votes.”


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