Scramble to fix Myanmar’s error-riddled voters roll

Scramble to fix Myanmar’s error-riddled voters roll
People vote at the South Dagon township, Yangon, Myanmar, 01 April 2012. Photo: Thet Htoo/EPA

"Go and check the voters lists" is the persistent refrain of worried opposition activists on a door-to-door campaign in Myanmar, armed with copies of electoral rolls they say are riddled with errors and could deny many the chance to vote in a historic ballot.
Criss-crossing neighbourhoods, opposition teams and activists have been trying to educate a population devoid of experience in democracy as the former military-ruled nation prepares for its most important election in a generation on November 8.
"We've found many mistakes, wrong names, wrong birth dates," said Thaung Htut, an official with Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy party (NLD) who fears time is running out to amend the rolls ahead of the crunch polls.
Sitting with colleagues on tiny plastic chairs beside a Buddhist temple, he scans official preliminary voter lists posted on outdoor boards by local authorities as part of a pilot project.
They check the official lists and give residents the forms they need to demand corrections, if they find errors.
Observers say election authorities are genuinely determined to ensure the polls -- the first NLD contested nationwide vote since 1990 -- are credible, as the world watches for a benchmark of democratic progress under the quasi civilian government that took power in 2011. 
But the process of computerising more than 30 million voter names for the first time is a major challenge in a country where the electoral system is being built from scratch. 
The full rolls should be published nationwide in August and voters have until October to fix any errors.
- 'Up to 80 percent error rate' - 
But even allowing for the goodwill of the reformist government, the NLD is scrambling to ensure the lists are checked early, fearful that huge numbers could be disenfranchised.
Lawmaker Aung San Suu Kyi -- who spent some 15 years under house arrest -- has raised fears that the error rate on preliminary lists is between 30 and 80 percent in certain areas of Yangon, the country's largest and most advanced city.
"How are we going to correct all of these lists in time for the election? And if things are that bad in Rangoon (Yangon), how will they be in the border areas, for example?" she said during a June interview with the Washington Post.
The Nobel laureate has herself gone door-to-door in her rural Kawhmu constituency and the capital Naypyidaw, where she lives during parliamentary sessions, to persuade people to overcome their wariness of the authorities and check the rolls.
On lists posted on the streets in Yangon, a suprising number of voters are listed as born on June 30 -- a date the election commission said is used for people who do not remember their birthdates.
"The dead are on the list but those who are alive are not there," complained NilarMyint, 53, a resident of Bahan district, after an NLD team had passed through.
Even the country's Union Election Commission has admitted lists have widespread flaws, blaming technical problems and human error in a recent notice in state media. 
But they insist there is still time to rectify many of the inaccuracies.
 - Paper files - 
While dramatic reforms have taken place in the private sector in Myanmar, the public service remains largely ineffective.
Piles of paper files accumulate in ministries where the idea of digitising records has emerged only recently -- paradoxically in a country swarming to social media. Typewriters can still be seen in some offices.
The electoral commission itself was only established in 2010 starting with a few dozen civil servants.
One of its major tasks was to digitise huge tracts of information held on paper files.
"We started computerising the lists only in November 2014," said Thant Zin Aung, from the electoral commission in Yangon.
Like many others, the former army officer says he was "transferred" to the commission after they started recruiting in 2013.
A television campaign for August subsidised by the US-funded International Foundation for Electoral Systems, which donated half of the commission's 2,000 computers, is set to encourage voters to verify they are on the electoral roll.
The commission has also recently launched a website and Facebook page called "Checkvoterlist" to check registrations online.
One western consultant said officials were battling an unfamiliar system to try and get all the information and changes uploaded in time.
"Data are not updated, they are very inconsistent," the consultant told AFP, on condition of anonymity.