Meeting Stakeholders in Myanmar: Reflections of IFES' President and CEO

Publication Date: 
19 Oct 2013

From October 18-23, 2013, IFES President and CEO Bill Sweeney is in Myanmar meeting with donors, partners and the IFES team.

He shares his thoughts and experiences while in the country that is making strides toward more inclusive elections.

I was in Myanmar to meet with the Union Election Commission (UEC); civil society; international partners like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute; international donors such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID); and, of course, the IFES team.

While the country’s next election, scheduled in 2015, may seem a long way from today, the reality is that time is already running out. Political consensus must be secured on a spectrum of important electoral framework and legal issues, which will then drive processes and calendars for critical issues like voter registration. Today, capacity building in Myanmar means focusing on personnel, infrastructure and resources.

The limited amount of time between now and the 2015 election was a main topic of conversation during a meeting with the UEC on October 21, as well as a meeting with civil society leaders on October 22 in Yangon. We spoke about the tasks ahead as envisioned in the draft strategic plan. While everyone agreed there was much to do and seemingly little time to do it, there did not seem to be focus on the need to plan the work and then make priorities for their own organizations.

During both meetings, I introduced a formula first explained to me by Mike Berman in a Democratic Party campaign training workshop in Atlanta in February 1974 called "Election Day Backwards." Take the expected date of the election (November 2015) and count the number of days left between now and then. Ask some questions and make some assumptions – will people work four, five, six days a week between now and then? Remove all national and religious holidays from the total – Myanmar has 25. Then simply remove another 10 percent of the days remaining because things happen (illness, accident, family emergency, etc.). That gives you a guesstimate of the time remaining for the work toward a successful election. 

In both meetings, we reduced the 739/740 days left until November 1, 2015, to a number in the low 400s. In both sessions, watching people discussing, not disagreeing, on the math and the assumptions (people will work how many days per week) was great fun. It reminded me of my light bulb moment in Atlanta. 

As we all know at IFES, from our experiences, simple things matter in terms of credibility of elections and voters' trust in the system. IFES is advising the UEC on a number of integrity measures in polling procedures that could be introduced to increase trust in the process. For example, an IFES report highlighted a simple item from the 2012 elections: the integrity of ballot boxes. No seals were common practice, and some ballot boxes were even sealed by scotch tape!

For the upcoming election, the UEC is considering introducing numbered seals to protect the integrity of the boxes. Is the will to change the ballot box in place? Are the resources available to purchase the thousands of boxes needed? Is transportation available for distribution and collection?

All these questions are second nature to IFES and need political consensus and direction in the country. 

My meetings did not just focus on the work that needs to be done, we also spoke about many developments that have already taken place.

IFES' focus on the rights of persons with disabilities in Myanmar was obvious. There were advocates of people with autism, Down syndrome, the blind and those challenged by access/mobility issues. More than one leader commented this was the first time they had been asked to participate in any political effort in their country.

Advocates for issues related to women and girls were well-represented. Human trafficking and access to education/society were discussed in detail. In many societies where IFES works, discrimination against women is a regular topic of conversation, but this was the first time I heard such specificity on trafficking. The attitudes of government, military and police toward this barbarism are critical and a strong personal motivation for political participation. People were determined to make a difference for their daughters and sons.

The meeting with civil society leaders also included economic policy advocates for the less powerful. Advocates of land reform and more progressive extractive minerals policy were among the organizations represented.

The entire session underscored the legitimacy the IFES team has achieved in a very short time. Some people came as another data point in the relationship building process. Others clearly attended to become part of the IFES process. More than one person said IFES does not conduct NATO ("No Action, Talk Only") meetings, which apparently are far too common in Myanmar right now. New definition of an old acronym for me.   

I left Myanmar deeply aware of what still needs to be done ahead of the next election, but also impressed by how civil society is mobilizing to ensure the needs of their constituents are being met. It is this citizen engagement coupled with the UEC’s willingness to get things right that gives me hope for the country. The parallel challenge is the simple opportunity to build relationships with Myanmar's leaders of the electoral process. People work with people, not institutions. This is the first step in what will hopefully be a long walk to a new and positive chapter for Myanmar. And IFES is ready to accompany all stakeholders at every step of the way.