In February of this year Libyans went to the polls to elect a constitutional drafting committee. They went to the polls in Tripoli. They went to the polls in Benghazi. And, in the case of over 7,000 Libyans, they went to the polls in Germany, Canada, the UK, Jordan; the list goes on.
These elections were just the latest in a growing trend of out-of-country voting processes (OCV) in transitional settings. In a list of countries that includes Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan and now Libya, OCV has provided an opportunity for individuals who have fled conflict and persecution to have a say in the future of a home state to which they might one day return. Of course, sustainable and democratic peace has not yet been achieved in many of these contexts. But simply put, at its heart OCV represents political inclusion across borders.
OCV comes with enormous mechanical difficulties, not least the question of how to register and administer a spatially disconnected electorate. But its promise is enormous. Which raises the question: when Burma goes to the polls in the much-hyped 2015 election, will the global Burma diaspora go too?
From informal conversations I’ve had with people involved in Burma’s on-going peace process, the answer seems to be, “it’s unclear”. It’s unclear precisely because this isn’t a question on anyone’s lips. Which needs immediate remedy. It’s symptomatic of a broader trend we’re seeing at the moment in how Burma’s refugee “issue” is being treated as something to be dealt with if and when the country’s myriad internal political issues are resolved. Of course there’s benefits to this stance: it supports the very valid point that pressure should not be put on refugees to return to their country of origin, if at all, until the political problems they fled in the first place have been addressed in full. But the downside is that we risk ignoring the very real fact that Burma’s refugee issue is part of the political issue. Does it not seem pertinent, then, that Burma’s refugees should have a say in shaping at least this part of the political solution?
If the case for considering OCV isn’t clear yet, bear in mind that, should real political transition crystallise in Burma, many of the 100,000 refugees living in the Thai-Burma border camps will likely have little option but to return to their former homes. Funding on the border has been drying up for years. While it states that conditions are not yet ripe for return, UNHCR’s 2013 framework for ‘Supporting Durable Solutions in South-East Myanmar’ makes abundantly clear that repatriation is envisioned as the primary solution in this case. If refugees are to be encouraged to return in the future, then it seems only fair that they should be given the opportunity now to have a say in the political landscape that they will face. Not to mention that a mere glance at Burma’s diasporic documentation, news and advocacy projects reveal this population in exile as deeply intelligent individuals holding well-crafted political opinions.
Burma’s national elections are a year away, and OCV may yet prove an imperfect solution. But now is time to start asking the question: who will go to the polls in 2015? And, perhaps more importantly, who will be excluded from Burma’s nascent political community?