Burma Elections: Not Free Nor Fair But Necessary
Our organization (USDP) has served the national cause for 17 years since its inception and has thus already gained the popular support of the public. Based on this support, and based on our aim to win the elections in accordance with our future development plan, we will definitely win in the upcoming elections.
– The Union Solidarity and Development Party (UDSP)
It could easily be a page from Orwell’s dystopian piece,1984. To think is a crime and the thought police are everywhere. Sometimes disguised as civilians, they are watching every move you make and every flicker of emotion that betrays your face. News related to Burma these days is frighteningly similar to Big Brother’s reach over the masses as described by Orwell. The difference is that a majority of Burmese are well aware of the inequity that has permeated their society and the persistent failure in creating sustainable progress (economic, political, social) since the formation of the Burmese state in 1948. Alas, these elections do not seem to bear any semblance of immediate or visible reform.
With elections a day away, the current atmosphere in Burma continues to be filled with a combination of apathy, fear and pessimism amongst civilians, all of which are bolstered by unprecedented restrictions by the military Junta. Foreign journalists (those who managed to enter the country on the premise of tourism) report that internet connections are painfully slow, making transmission of emails, images and video difficult to impossible. Burmese landlords are being instructed by ‘security’ police to report all whereabouts and movements of their non-Burmese tenants. The Myanmar administration has stated that the representatives of foreign media already present in the country and the various countries’ embassy officials will be the only allowed international observers. No UN observers for this round. Needless to mention, UDSP will dispatch their own ‘election monitors’ to ensure a ‘smooth’ voting process.
The regime has its heart set on a sweeping victory that can get the international community off their backs – at least for the next several years.
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION FOR THE POWERFUL
The high ranking members of the party will never lose their power even if their titles change. It is the foundational policy of the party to advance through victory. But, the USDP in all its honorable efforts is willing to shed its military uniform.
There is certainly an Orwellian tone to the Junta’s rhetoric. The military leadership has managed to entrench the system with its power just as the Big Brother’s party had a firm hold over the citizens of Oceania. Albeit in civilian garb, the Junta intends to continue on the same path.
The constitution, which is being rejected by many political activists as contrary to international legal principles, reserves 25 percent of the seats in the new parliament for the military. This percentage is enough to block any attempt to change the prevailing laws established by the Junta. So the overarching legal principles will remain unchanged after elections.
POLITICAL DISSIDENTS: NO HOPES FOR RELEASE
Beware, in case you spew out hatred for the Big Brother, even if in your sleep. Or you might just be sent to Room 101.
For those unfamiliar with the reference, it is the yet another allusion to 1984 – a harrowing account of those arrested and tortured into submission by the police for ‘thought crime’ (simply thinking ill about the state party). With an eerily comparable attitude, the Myanmar administration continues to outlaw public gatherings that exceed five persons at a time. Those suspected of advocating against the Junta are often arrested without explicit reasoning or warrants.
As expected, those ‘dissidents’ already serving prison sentences in Burma’s version of Room 101 are barred from standing for elections. This means the 2200 activists who are currently political prisoners serving sentences for purportedly jeopardizing national unity by attacking the regime will not stand a chance. Daw Syuki who has been under house arrest for 14 years is included in the list. Most Burmese await November 13, the intended day of her release, with much greater anticipation than election day. They hope that the regime will surprise them by releasing the opposition leader.
ELECTION REGISTRATION: NO FUNDS, NO POLLS
Political parties had two weeks to register for elections provided they paid a sum of approximately $500, a hefty amount, especially for independent candidates. All political organizations were required to submit their candidates for the 1103 constituencies in the country within this deadline. Unlike the situation in 1990, when the government provided a time frame of six months to carry out the pre-election registration, this time the regime expedited the process to deliberately allow limited space for opposition parties to contest. The 1990 elections disaster where the opposition won an overwhelming majority obviously taught the administration a valuable lesson in election control mechanisms.
BARRED POLITICAL PARTIES: MISSING ETHNIC VOICE
The existing election commission laws bar political groups with armed factions from participating in polls, even if ceasefire agreements are in place.
Article 3 (B) of the law reads: “The insurgent organizations which hold arms to go against the state are not allowed to apply for the formation of political party.” Although the government removed ceasefire groups from the list of ‘unlawful’ parties, ethnic minority groups with armed factions could not register for polls unless they agreed to surrender their forces to become part of the Border Guard Force (BGF). In the views of most ethnic leaders, this would mean permanent enslavement to the wishes of the Burmese military and continued human rights violations in which ethnic soldiers would be mandated to perpetrate crimes against their fellow men and women.
Whilst the international community is discussing the need for a war crimes tribunal to examine cases of torture, rape and killings in Eastern Burma, leaders from most ethnic groups warn of an upheaval in conflict and increase in forced migration immediately following elections. While speaking at a conference on the current health crisis in Eastern Burma in Bangkok, Charm Tong of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) emphasized that the systematic government denial to provide health care and basic amenities to ethnic communities points to the agenda of the Junta to wipe out populations from the region either by force or through deliberate negligence. She fears that the regime will undertake more aggressive measures upon securing majority vote in the elections.
ELIGIBLE VOTERS: DISENFRANCHISED MILLIONS
Only 29 million out of the total population of 50 million are able to cast votes at the Sunday polls. This number does not include those internally displaced, mostly belonging to ethnic minority communities, who are not registered and others who fled persecution over the last few decades and remain as unclassified migrants or self- exiled Burmese citizens in Thailand and other countries. Due to the lack of an updated census, many eligible voters will be disenfranchised despite being Burmese citizens with full rights.
Additionally, elections will not be held in large parts of Shan State and in several villages of Kachin, Karen, Karenni (Kayah) and Mon State. The USDP claims that conditions in these areas do not permit ‘free and fair elections’ at the present time. According to The Irrawaddy, a publication based in Thailand, this move alone has reportedly disenfranchised 1.5 million people in more than 3,400 villages. It is expected that a majority of ethnic groups in Eastern Burma will not vote in elections.
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