Posted in Legislative Research on Aug 11, 2020

On 6th August the State Counsellor, in a teleconference covered in the Global New Light of Myanmar, said that citizens have a duty to vote in the November election. She also suggested that citizens who choose not to vote and then criticise government – saying “they don’t like this or that” – are irresponsible. In this article we take a critical look at these statements. We argue that, based on international and national legal frameworks, voting is a right, not a duty; and that all citizens, whether they have voted or not, have a right to criticise their government.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), originally penned in 1948 and widely accepted as the foundation of international human rights law, states that ‘everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives’ and that ‘the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.’ (Article 21, UDHR).

The 2008 Constitution of Myanmar, states that ‘every citizen who has attained 18 years of age on the day on which the election commences, who is not disqualified by law, who is eligible to vote, and person who has the right to vote under the law, shall have the right to vote’ (Article 391a). This principle of voting as a right is further enshrined in Myanmar’s election laws, where the ‘electoral right’ is defined as ‘the right to vote in elections or the right to abstain’.

It is clear, therefore, that in both international and Myanmar law, voting is enshrined as a right, not a duty. Further, the specific inclusion of the ‘right to abstain’ is written into Myanmar’s election laws. So, it is clear that citizens have a right not to vote (as NLD members did en masse during the 2010 elections, in their famous boycott of that poll). Insofar as there is a duty related to elections, it is the duty of the government to protect citizens’ rights to a free and fair election.

The right to criticise

In her speech, the State Counsellor also argued that the ‘duty’ to vote was only one day every five years: a relatively minor commitment. Whilst undoubtedly true, this does rather shed a light on the current government’s limited understanding of democracy.

Democracy might begin, but certainly does not end, with voting. As well as being able to periodically elect the government, citizens also have the right to ongoing participation in the policymaking process, and the day-to-day activities of government. As the UDHR puts it, ‘everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country’.

However, this government has demonstrated time and again that once elected, they seem to expect absolute authority, free from criticism. For example, they have frequently used defamation lawsuits to silence critics, refused to amend the peaceful protest laws, and refused to bring forward a right to information law that would give citizens their rightful access to information and data held by the state.

In addition to elections, a democracy is a system of government where citizens can raise their voices to express their grievances and demands, where a free press can ask difficult questions of those in power, and where groups can take to the streets and protest peacefully. Whilst not a legal duty, we at Ananda feel that citizens have a moral duty to question their government and participate by ‘saying that don’t like this, or that’. What is more irresponsible is blind discipline and obedience in the face of injustice and corruption.

Whilst we at the Ananda do not encourage the ‘no vote’ movement, it is nonetheless a freely expressed political choice, protected by the law. Those who do not vote are clearly unhappy with the current situation, but feel, for whatever reason, that there are no viable alternatives. They have a right to make this choice, and in doing so do not forfeit their right to criticise and complain about the government.

Indeed, the foundations of every democracy movement lie in civil disobedience and protest from unhappy citizens, united in their desire to make positive change. To label criticism of government – whether a voter or not – as ‘irresponsible’, risks turning a blind eye to the fundamental principles of democracy.