Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Burma’s Bleak Election Plans

The junta’s election preparations have a depressingly familiar ring to them. Phil Thornton reports from the Thai-Burma border.

By Phil Thornton for

The military regime that rules Burma with an iron fist claims it will hold ‘free’ and ‘fair’ elections in 2010—the supposed crowning moment of its self-lauded ‘Roadmap to Democracy.’

But these claims have been denounced by opposition groups, who say the proposed elections are nothing more than the final step in the hijacking of the democratic process with the intention of extending the regime’s military control through a rigged ballot and the election of a civilian proxy.

Moe Zaw Oo, joint secretary of the exiled branch of the National League for Democracy, says there’s not a politician in a democratic society who would accept the military regime’s conditions for the election.

‘It’s supposed to be this year, it’s already March and they have yet to tell us the election date. How can we organize our campaigns and canvass our constituents?’ Moe Zaw asks. ‘You can see the election is rigged—look at the Electoral Laws. Look at the Electoral Commission. Look at the Constitution.’

Moe Zaw says the junta is leaving little to chance.

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‘They handpicked their own man, Maj. Gen. Thein Soe, as the electoral commissioner and he’ll allow them [the regime] to do what they want, within and according to their law.’

One of the Electoral Laws, the Political Party Registration Law, allows the Committee to reject party applications. It also bans democracy organisations, armed groups opposed to the regime, groups or individuals receiving outside support and about 2,100 political prisoners from taking part in the elections. This includes National League for Democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as 430 jailed NLD members.

The party has 60 days to register with the Election Committee if it intends to contest the elections, with the committee having the right to reject the NLD’s application.

This places Burma’s main political opposition party, the NLD, in a tough position. By barring its charismatic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, it effectively checkmates the NLD. If the NLD wants to contest the 2010 elections, they have to kick her out of the party within 60 days.

The laws are a clear signal of the regime’s election intentions towards the NLD even though it has disingenuously denied, through the state-controlled media, that its laws were devised with the objective of banning ‘a certain person from standing for election.’

Ko Tate Naing, secretary of political prisoner advocacy group AAPP, says if political prisoners are not released all international governments should reject the 2010 elections.

‘Without the release of all political prisoners there can be no national reconciliation or democracy in Burma,’ Ko Tate says. ‘The current election laws aimed at disqualifying political prisoners are meant to restrict all opposition groups.’

The electoral laws also drew flak from a number of international humanitarian groups, according to Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

‘The new law’s assault on opposition parties is sadly predictable,’ he says. ‘It continues the sham political process that is aimed at creating the appearance of civilian rule with a military spine.’

The electoral laws also nullify the result of the 1990 election, which the NLD won in a landslide by securing more than 80 percent of the seats.

Khun Myint Tun, an exiled Burmese member of parliament who in 1990 won the seat of Phaton in Mon State, called the 2010 elections a farce.

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‘Under this military regime we have no freedom of association, no freedom of speech and no freedom of assembly. How can it ever be a fair and free election? ‘

Another huge sticking point for Khun Myint Tun and the opposition is that under the electoral law, all political parties must pledge to abide by and protect the much-hated 2008 Constitution.

‘Constitution is a sham’

The regime took 18 years to complete the much-criticized document. In its initial stages, Khun Myint Tun was drafted to attend the National Convention to work on the Constitution, but after three years of having his phone tapped, his mail opened and being followed and threatened with jail for breaches of national security, he decided to leave. He says the national referendum in 2008 that voted in the Constitution was a sham.

‘They had the audacity to ignore the plight of millions of homeless Burmese people devastated by Cyclone Nargis and went ahead with their referendum vote to endorse their constitution,’ he says.

Khun Myint Tun says the Constitution is designed, in spite of election outcomes, to ensure the regime keeps control by giving 25 percent of parliamentary seats to serving military officers.

‘Under the Constitution, the president has to have military experience, and the military will control three key ministries; defence, home affairs and border areas administration,’ Khun Myint Tun says. ‘People married to foreigners—and no surprise here, this includes Aung San Suu Kyi—are banned from holding parliamentary seats.’

It’s not surprising the regime is scared of Aung San Suu Kyi and her proven political appeal—she has an impressive track record. A landslide election victory in 1990 and video footage from her visit to rural Burma in 2003 underscores her political impact, with the jerky footage showing streets and buildings lined with tens of thousands of people waiting to catch sight of her or hear her speak. At the time, the massive crowds of people that turned out for her shook the regime, which responded with state sponsored thugs who attacked her car and supporters, killing 74 and injuring hundreds more.

But it’s not only exiled Burmese politicians who are concerned about the lack of fairness in the 2010 election process.

In early March, UN special rapporteur Tomas Quintana said in his report on human rights in Burma that ‘…the international community has urged the government of Myanmar to announce an election date and an electoral framework that adheres to international standards for a free, fair, participatory and transparent election process.’

The release of the Electoral Laws has angered both the US and UK governments, who say the regime is fast removing what little credibility its elections have.

Quintana’s report reinforces the international community’s insistence that the regime release political prisoners before the elections, ‘…the Security Council, Government representatives from many nations, Nobel laureates and respected leaders have all called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the more than 2,100 prisoners of conscience.’

Moe Zaw says Burmese migrant workers are also denied their rights.

‘There are about two million migrants who won’t be able to vote. Most won’t be able to get time off work or afford the travel and there will be no postal votes. Our organisation and many other groups in exile are classified under the electoral laws as illegal and we won’t be allowed to vote or be part of the campaigning.’

Naing, a rural worker on the Thai-Burma border, agrees and says he wants to go back to Burma and vote.

‘We talk about it, we’ve waited a long time, but we can’t plan for it—we don’t know when it will be held,’ he says. ‘We’re worried if we go back we won’t be able to leave again.’

Yet nobody, least of all the international community, should be surprised by this latest move from the junta. The regime has been putting its election strategy in place for a long time, but most foreign diplomats ignored the warning signs and hoped the regime would be willing to loosen its grip on power.

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In 2009, in what many international human rights groups saw as a cynical move by the junta, political opponents were locked up in order to remove them from the political arena before the 2010 elections. Monks, lawyers, artists, doctors, poets, activists and journalists were all swept up in the purge and sentenced to jail terms of between 18 months and 69 years.

The most high profile arrest was Aung San Suu Kyi. Already under house arrest since 2003, she was taken to Insein Jail and charged with breaches of her detention. She was later sentenced to another 18 months. At the time, her arrest ignited a furious response from abroad, with Asian and European foreign ministers meeting in Vietnam in May 2009 calling for the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the lifting of all restrictions on political parties. But the regime ignored them, waiting until the situation died down and international attention was diverted elsewhere before releasing its Electoral Law.

The Burmese junta rarely responds to international pressure. Over the years, a series of high profile politicians and diplomats have all been used by the regime in what amounts to nothing more than charade. Eventually, the ‘meaningful discussions’ meander into nothing. Meanwhile the army continues to attack ethnic communities, political prisoners are tortured and the regime tightens its grip on control. Each time the regime manages to sideline and reduce the international community to little more than frustrated spectators playing catch-up.

And this time it is no different—the international community is committed to an election, but a fair and free election is looking more and more like a pipedream. If the electoral laws are allowed to stand unchanged, the regime has its political opponents right where they want them—divided.

In the last three years, Burma was involved in three events that have shocked the world; the Saffron Revolution crackdown, Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath and the unprovoked Burma army attacks on ethnic villagers in eastern Burma.

On each occasion the junta’s leaders, in spite of criticism, have managed to avoid a UN Security Council inquiry or an inquiry into crimes against humanity, due largely to support for the regime from Council members China and Russia.

The 16th ASEAN Summit in Vietnam in early April offers an opportunity for its members to lobby the regime over its electoral laws and the inclusion of Aung San Suu Kyi in the country’s election, but Khun Myint Tun says he doesn’t hold out much hope, considering ASEAN’s past support for the regime.

Against this dismal background, and what has been a bad month for Burma’s political opposition, the UN’s Quintana report is the only positive. In his report, Quintana said his mission to Burma in February raised serious doubts for a fair election, and he noted restrictions on freedoms of expression, assembly and association had not been lifted.

On March 24, the UK government offered its support to Quintana’s call for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by the Burma regime. Its ambassador to the United Nations, Mark Lyell Grant, says Britain would support the referral of a case to the International Criminal Court, a statement that followed the Australian government’s decision to back any commission of inquiry.

But if this fails, then Burma’s political opposition will be left with the unappetizing choice of boycotting the election or going to the polls knowing they may well be effectively rigged. Either way the generals win.