Burmese election: neither free nor fair

By the end of this year, Burma will be holding its first election in two decades. This southeast Asian nation has been in the grip of the military government since 1962.

The military government has yet to announce the exact date, while there are rumours that the election could be held on 10 October, in conformity with the Burmese generals’ superstitious beliefs about numbers, that if it is held on 10/10/10 it could bring them victory.

In the last election witnessed by the country in May 1990, the now-dissolved National League for Democracy (NLD) – a party led by the Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – won a landslide majority of 392 seats out of 492 seats. After the election, the military government refused to accept the result. Suu Kyi, the NLD’s MPs and its members were imprisoned. The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, Burma’s government in exile, has documented the names of MPs that have died in prison or fled the country in exile. Many MPs have only been recently released.

For this upcoming election, the military government is getting smarter. It drafted a constitution, which took 10 years to write and is riddled with undemocratic elements such as barring candidates who are married to non-Burmese people from participating in the election. Thus, Suu Kyi is barred from participating. Furthermore, a third of the 664 parliamentary seats will be strictly reserved for the military. Based upon these irregularities, the NLD announced its refusal to join the election, making this an excuse for the military government to dissolve the party.

We can therefore be sure that this election will be neither free nor fair unless there are big changes based on the pressures from the international communities, especially from the association of southeast Asian nations (Asean), the regional grouping of 10 southeast Asian states, which Burma is a member.

The 43rd meeting of Asean foreign ministers, held last month in Hanoi, came up with a 15-page joint communiqué with only a single paragraph discussing the development in Burma. The paragraph states the “importance of national reconciliation in [Burma] and the holding of general election in a free, fair, and inclusive manner”. It does not, however, mention what Asean’s response would be if the election turned out to be a complete farce. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general and key stakeholder in Burma’s nation building, has already expressed his frustration at the “lack of co-operation at this critical moment”.

The statement from the meeting, however, is nothing new. Asean has been heavily criticised for not doing enough for Burma. After the violent crackdown on the streets of Rangoon in 2007, all it could offer to the Burmese people was a statement raising its concern.

During an interview with the BBC, Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary-general for Asean, saw the election as a step forward despite heavily criticisms from the NLD and the UN: “No election is going to be perfect. It is a positive step, better than not having election at all. It is a step forward”. At an international level, Asean member states are still silent with regards to the call by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on Burma, to set up a commission of inquiry regarding the alleged war crimes the government has committed against its citizens.

In November 2007, Asean adopted its charter, which has an explicit aim to “strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”. The upcoming election will test whether the regional body can actually deliver what it promises to the people of Burma. As the date comes near, Asean must realise that Burma’s election could become an embarrassment to the regional grouping. The clock is ticking.

Pokpong Lawansiri, a World Bank scholar at the department of political science, University College London.