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Examining Myanmar’s Attempt at Democracy

Examining Myanmar’s Attempt at Democracy

The stage is set for a revolutionary week inside one of the world’s largest closed states. Unfortunately, a peek behind the curtain reveals substantial holes in this façade of democracy.

Sunday, Nov. 7 saw Myanmar’s first general election in more than 20 years. Next Saturday is the scheduled release date of political dissident and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who has lived under house arrest for nearly as long.

The ruling military junta has one of the most brutal human rights records in the world and a history of retaining power regardless of the will of the people. With news of an upcoming election, justified skepticism arose, bringing into question the legitimacy of the proceedings.

Will the elections be fair? Will voters be intimidated? Will the government accept foreign observers to ensure the legitimacy of Myanmar’s first election this century?

Providing an answer to these questions fell to Election Commission Chairman Thein Soe at a recent press conference. His claims are telling of the degree of hypocrisy permeating this election.

“We don’t need foreign observers. We have abundant experience in holding elections.”
As far as Myanmar’s “abundant experience in holding elections,” the only other one under the current regime took place in 1990. It resulted in the leader of the victorious (pro-democratic) party being arrested and held without charge and the military declaring the election null and void.

The sudden show of democratic flare seems to be for the benefit of the country’s most powerful ally. News of an election—no matter how fraudulent—gives China the footing to continue protecting the government from implication in human rights atrocities committed by their military. With a “successful” democratic election in their defense, China could keep the U.S. and others at bay for the time being.  

Were hypothetical foreign observers to conclude that these elections were somehow fixed, China’s only argument in Myanmar’s defense would be crippled. So perhaps the chairman’s analysis is correct in terms of national interest. They really don’t need foreign observers.

“The elections will be held in accordance with the rules of the country. … Our election laws are very balanced and easy to understand.”

The “rules of the country” recently outlawed the National League for Democracy (NLD), the largest and most influential political party. This effectively rendered the vast majority of winners from the 1990 election ineligible to run in this year’s race.

As might be expected following the destruction of an important political adversary, a majority of the seats are now uncontested. Even if the elections themselves were run without corruption, they would have been meaningless. Due to a lack of eligible opponents, the military-backed State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) locked up a pre-polling majority win.

Turning to the election laws, they must not have been too easy to understand for the voters of Langko, Shan State, where nearly 20 percent of the votes were deemed “invalid” for one technicality or another.

Adding insult to injury, 33 prominent townships (home to more than 1.5 million people) were simply deemed “too unstable” to hold elections. Many of these areas are controlled by ethnic groups and are considered pro-democratic strongholds. These people are also unlikely to vote for the current regime due to the human rights abuses they regularly endure at the hands of the Burma Army.

“We do not need to make clarification on the credibility of the election.”

Sadly, this statement is probably true. The actions taken by a government desperately clinging to power make all the clarifications necessary to form an opinion on “the credibility of the election.”

As polls closed Sunday, reports began flooding out of the country documenting every brand of voter fraud imaginable. From ballot stuffing to faulty voter lists and everything in between, any “credibility” the government might have retained after 48 years of oppressive rule is now gone.

The election’s ultimate impact on the weakest members of Burmese society, however, remains to be seen.

Recent troop shifts and the purchase of 50 new attack helicopters suggest the military is preparing for action. SPDC seems to be mounting a new campaign to secure greater control over the farthest reaches of their country. Such a campaign would likely involve the same level of disregard for human life displayed by SPDC actions to date.

“When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents,” said a representative of Free Burma Rangers (FBR). Based out of Chiang Mai, Thailand, FBR provides direct medical relief and survival training to Burmese villagers who are often the victims of SPDC initiatives.

With renewed “credibility” coming off an engineered victory, SPDC command can expect little accountability from the international community.

Corrupt or legitimate, open or closed, all elections affect the lives of the citizens who live under their jurisdiction. Myanmar is no exception. The only difference here is, there won’t be any surprises (or changes) once these votes are tallied.

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