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In a small Burmese café south of Chiang Mai, glasses clink, cutlery is shuffled and tea is drunk. The early dinner crowd sit in small groups chattering loudly from table to table. Subjects aren’t particularly varied and everyone has a vocal opinion from sports to fast cars, but when questions are asked about the coming election the mood changes.
“I just don’t care, I have no reason to care,” Pah, 25, states emphatically. “It’s still the same shit it always was. Nothing has changed since the last election. If anything, it’s become worse.” Pah, like many in the diner, is an ethnic Kachin from northeastern Burma, and her thoughts are echoed by many around her.
After the elections of 2010, fighting quickly resumed in Kachin State after a 17-year ceasefire, displacing thousands. Along with escalating conflicts in Shan and Karen State, this led to a huge influx of minority groups as well as ethnic Burmese into northern Thailand.
While a steady stream of economic migrants, asylum seekers and refugees had been massing in Thailand for the past few decades, many came across the border as a result of the 2010 general election, which though widely dismissed as a sham, was won overwhelmingly by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP.
While in 2010 voting wasn’t available for overseas nationals, the Burmese embassy in Bangkok announced in May that it would be accepting voter registration for those officially registered in the Thai kingdom, (approximately 1.8 million), providing that overseas residents “fill in Form 15” and return it to the embassy in Bangkok for ‘further scrutiny on their eligibility to vote’.
Union Election Commission Chairman Tin Aye told reporters in July: “There are [Burmese] expatriates among the 32 million names [of eligible voters.] For those who go abroad with the permission of the government, they can submit Form No 15 and we will send ballots to them. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will assist in this.”
One migrant who plans on voting is Mai Sai Khun, aged 28, who came to Thailand illegally from Shan State in 2009 after life there became unbearable.
“The army had begun coming to our village frequently. They forced us to work, build them buildings, dig wells – hard work for no pay. So I ran away.” Mai Sai Khun and his friend Hseng Hor Sai were both working on construction sites in Chiang Mai for below minimum wage while attending migrant school in the evenings. Now they work for the Shan Human Rights Foundation where they make up two of the three permanent members.
“This will be our first time voting,” Hseng Hor Sai declares. “But I really don’t think it will make any difference, not until the constitution is changed to remove the military from parliament. But it’s my right to vote and I’ve never done it before … We will see.”
While a tone of optimism hangs in his words, both young men are sceptical that other migrants will make the effort to have their say at the ballot box. “It’s difficult. Ordinary people really don’t care, they have other concerns. For them, the process is too long and boring; they have no hope anyway, so they see no point,” said Hseng Hor Sai.
Coupled with bureaucracy and pessimism, it’s not hard to understand the disillusion of many. Hseng continued: “People also think voting can make you a target. That’s what happened last time in Shan State – if someone found out you voted for the wrong party the village chief would punish you, sometimes exile you from the village. Even in the Thai border camps people are still afraid this could happen.”
The two exchange a betel-red toothed grin. “Yes maybe we’re a bit scared, but now we don’t have a lot to lose,” shrugged Mai Sai Khun.
Both were wary about having their photo taken. They too expect to see further violence in their home state as a result of the elections. “Whatever the result, the army will send in more soldiers. If the USDP wins, they [the generals] will think they have the authority to send in more troops and if NLD win they’ll send troops in to punish us,” said Hseng Hor Sai.
The elections in November are seen by many migrants as a precursor to yet more violence.
Moon Nay Li, an ethnic Kachin from Shan State, sits behind a tall dining table at the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand in Chiang Mai where she acts as general secretary. The association helps recently arrived migrants gain legal status and find legitimate employment. Moon is nine-months pregnant and extremely apprehensive about what the future holds for her unborn baby.
“Not long after the elections in 2010, the ceasefire was broken, so this time we’re very nervous about the situation,” she says. “They are already sending in more troops – more offensives targeting Kachin people ahead of the elections.
“As a registered migrant I haven’t received any information from the Burmese embassy. “A lot of us here [in Thailand] and in Kachin State see the election as fixed already. That’s why I have no interest in voting – [I support] a boycott.”
In 2010 the national government declared several ethnic areas unsafe for polling, denying millions the opportunity to vote. But it’s not the only tactic used to dispense of unwanted ballots.
“My sister-in-law is a civil servant for a government-run hospital in Shan State. She went to register to vote and was told she had already voted in advance,” laughs Moon Nay Li. “It’s because she works for the government; they have all her details so they voted on her behalf.”
Moon Nay Li grows sombre. “We’re really worried about our future,” she continues. “I have a little boy already and now a girl on the way. If real peace comes to Kachin State then I want my children to live there.”
She reflects on the decade and a half she’s spent in Thailand. “Every week at our church we have new faces, new introductions. When I arrived in 2004 we were the first Kachin church in Chiang Mai and for a long time we had a congregation of just 40 to 50. Now it’s over 300 and there are two churches. It’s crazy how many people are coming.
“After the elections we’re expecting many, many more.”
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.