Myanmar Elections: An Analysis

By C.S.Kuppuswamy

After two decades, a multi party general election was held in Myanmar on 7 November 2010.  Elections were held for the two houses of parliament and 14 regional/state assemblies.  A total of 37 political parties participated in the election. 29 million voters were eligible to vote.  There were about 3000 candidates that included a few independents.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which had a landslide victory in the 1990 elections, boycotted this election because of the flawed constitution and the unfair election laws.  Though the official results have not yet been declared the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the proxy party of the ruling junta, claims to have won 80 percent of the seats.

Low Voter Turnout

Reports from most of the agencies other than the official media indicated a low voter turn out.  With no external observers, reports indicate that the polls were orchestrated and stage managed.   The Burmese media in exile quoted instances of intimidation, threats, vote buying and tampering of voter lists. The biggest flaw in this election according to them has been the system of “advance voting”.  In order to facilitate people who are on election duty and on other essential duties, they were permitted to exercise their franchise in advance.  This has been misused by the government sponsored party USDP in coercing a big chunk of the voters especially in rural areas to cast their votes in advance in its favour and in the presence of the party or government officials.

The opposition pro-democracy parties particularly the National Democratic Force (NDF) have lodged complaints with the election commission on illegal advance voting.  But this will be of no avail.  A statement of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), a Bangkok based independent organisation for monitoring elections in the Asia region said – “Even though the UEC (EC) did not make the official dates of advance voting widely known, unfortunately, many advance votes were taken outside of that official timeframe.”

Political Parties

More than two-thirds of the 3000 candidates who contested in the election were from the two proxy parties of the Junta – Union Solidarity and Development Party contesting almost all the 1157 seats  and the National Unity Party contesting 990.

The main opposition parties were the National Democratic Force, a splinter group of the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which could field only 163 candidates and the Democratic Party with 48 candidates. There were a few parties from the major ethnic groups who fared well in their respective areas.

By the sheer weight of the number of candidates itself,, the contest was mainly between the two proxy parties of the Junta – USDP and NUP.

Even in the run-up to the elections the opposition parties were handicapped, by the restrictions imposed by the election commission, the censorship on their election material and propaganda and intimidation by the police and civil staff. They entered the field knowing fully well that they are going to fight a losing battle. They must be wondering why at all they decided to contest in this heavily loaded election!

Ethnic Groups

Elections were not held in some townships of these troubled areas in the states of Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon and Shan (including four townships in Wa self administered division)    as the military junta considered these areas too dangerous for voting to take place.  It is estimated that with this move, about 1.5 million voters could not exercise their franchise in this election.  Most of the armed ethnic groups, having refused to become border guards under the Myanmar Army, were under pressure and were gearing themselves up for armed skirmishes with the Myanmar Army.  A clash between the government troops and a faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), known as Brigade 5, began on the election day (November 07) itself.  The fighting was in Myawaddy  town and around the area of Three Pagodas Pass near the Thai border with over 20000 refugees fleeing into Thailand for safety.

Once the dust settles down after elections, it looks that  more ethnic groups now on cease fire may start fighting with the government troops as they are disillusioned with the elections.  Even those ethnic parties that took part in the election such as Shan National Democratic Party (SNDP), All Mon Region Democracy Party (AMRDP) and the Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP) have filed complaints with the election commission and declared that they will not recognise the election results.

Reaction on the Elections- International:

International reaction has been on expected lines.

US President Barack Obama dismissed it as stolen and said “For too long the people of Burma have been denied the right to determine their own destiny.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US was “deeply disappointed” and called the vote “a missed opportunity to begin genuine transition toward democratic governance and national reconciliation”.  US Defence Secretary Dr. Robert Gates issued a joint statement from Melbourne, with Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Defence minister Stephen Smith: “Australia and the United States underlined their deep regret that the Burmese authorities failed to hold free, fair and genuinely inclusive elections.”

China’s ministry of foreign affairs as expected, lauded the election as “peaceful and successful.”  The Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said “This is a critical step for Myanmar (Burma) in implementing the seven-step road map in the transition to an elected government, and thus is welcome.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has described the Myanmar elections as “insufficiently inclusive, participatory and transparent.”

ASEAN’s current chairman, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem said ASEAN welcomed the election “as a significant step forward in the implementation of the seven-point roadmap for Democracy” and ASEAN “is encouraging Myanmar to continue to accelerate the process of national reconciliation and democratization, for stability and development in the country.”

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said “That the playing field was tilted was evident from the regime’s refusal to allow credible international observation, or foreign media to witness the election.”

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said “For the people of Burma, it will mean the return to power of a brutal regime that has pillaged the nation’s resources and overseen widespread human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, rape and torture.”

Reaction on the Elections- Internal:

“From what I have heard there are many many questions about the fairness of the election and there are many many allegations of vote rigging and so on” – Aung San Suu Kyi said in an interview after her release.

“We took the lead at the beginning but the USDP later came up with so-called advance votes and that changed the results completely, so we lost,” Khin Maung Swe, leader of the National Democratic Force (NDF), the largest opposition party, said.

“This election was the dirtiest among the elections after Burma gained independence from the British in 1948.” –Than Than Nu, daughter of Burma’s first premier, U Nu.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi was released on 13 November 2010 after her latest term of detention which lasted for 7 ½ years from May 2003.  The elections were so planned to be held a week before her scheduled date of release to preclude her presence in public that may impact the elections.  With her release, the spotlights have been turned on her instead on the election results.  Despite her charisma, mass support and international backing, she has an uphill task to revive the fortunes of her party (NLD), which has been officially disbanded.  On her release, while meeting her well wishers and supporters she told “If we work in unity, we will achieve our goal”.  Only time can tell as to how she is going to achieve that goal.

In the first address to the people after her release she said “If we want to get what we want, we have to do it in the right way; otherwise we will not achieve our goal however noble or correct it may be”.  She has also called for face to face talks with the Junta’s leader. Her approach for now has been conciliatory-that is engagement and not confrontation.

What next?

The new parliament will form three committees and each of which will propose a candidate for the post of the president and out of these three one will become the president and the other two vice-presidents.  The cabinet will be appointed by the president.  It is widely believed that Senior General Than Shwe will continue at the helm as President.

Reportedly former Prime Minister Thein Sein and most of the incumbent ministers and retired generals have won in this election.  Hence the new cabinet will be more or less the same set of persons minus their military uniforms.

There is no indication yet as to how soon the new parliament will be convened.   It has to be before 90 days from the date of the election.

Though the military will continue to be entrenched in the law making body and the government, the saving grace will be that there will be an opposition to voice their views, whether it is heard or not.

SAAG

SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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