(HN, November 4, 2010 ) -- After months of preparation and the promise of “free and fair” elections, the polls in Myanmar (also known as Burma) will be open for the first time in 20 years on November 7th. The general election forms the fifth step of the seven-step "road map to democracy" proposed by the ruling junta in Myanmar, the `State Peace and Development Council’ (SPDC) in 2003. The sixth and seventh steps being the gathering of elected representatives and the building of a modern, democratic nation, consecutively.
Although the international consensus is that there will be no such thing as a “free and fair” election this Sunday there is support of the generals from India, China, Thailand and others; and the world’s top diplomat, Ban Ki-moon is keeping optimistic.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is expected to emerge as the new “civilian leaders” backed by millions of Burmese who have been enticed or coerced into joining the proxy party.
The USDP, led by current Prime Minister Thein Sein, began on a populist platform, offering low-interest loans to Burma’s poorest. The cash-for-vote ploy may prove to be too hard to refuse for the average Burmese citizen to refuse as approximately 33 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. After decades of military rule, Burma has the lowest per capita GDP in South East Asia.
The wealth of the USDP has meant that it can promote a candidate in 1,112 of the 1,158 districts around the country, while most other parties struggle with high registration fees. In 52 of those districts, USDP faces no competition at all and in fact has actually been canceling balloting in at least 12 villages in six districts in Kayah state "as conditions are not conducive to holding a free and fair election," according to an official notice seen on November 2nd. The announcement in the states official newspaper gave no further explanation for the action, but in September, the election commission canceled voting in about 300 villages in 33 townships where ethnic minorities are dominant.
Funding for the USDP comes from the disbanded Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), the so-called "social welfare" wing of the junta, which also boasts the country's most powerful political and business figures. Most of the 26 million USDA members are now with the USDP.
Since 1990, world attention has focused on Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 58 percent of the vote in parliamentary in 1990, only to see the results annulled and Suu Kyi put under house arrest, imprisoned where she’s been since. Her house arrest was due to end in May 2009, but was extended for eighteen months after she was convicted for violating the terms of her house arrest.
From her house arrest she has called for an election boycott and supporters of the (NLD) are holding "lightning" protests telling the public that a vote on Sunday will legitimize military rule.
Currently the strongest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, formed by former members of the NLD, is fielding 163 candidates against the USDP’s 1,100 and faces added competition from the boycott lobby. What opposition exists faces little hope of winning any clout in the new parliament as 25% of those seats are already reserved for the military.
"You cannot hope the election to be free and fair by world standards," said Dr Than Nyein, the chairman of the NDF. "But at least we can have a civilian government in place of a military one and I think this is a great step forward.”
In addition to this on October 22nd the country’s West Coast state of Rakhine was hit by Cyclone Giri which devastated the area, leaving 71,000 people homeless and affecting over 200,000 according to government estimates who, according to the UN will require food aid over the next three months following the Cyclone's destruction of rice fields. Although petitions have been filed asking for a delay in elections to take place in the affected areas, the government has not replied and elections will take place on Sunday as scheduled. This is not the first time the government has proceeded with voting after a natural disaster. In the 2008 referendum, which set the ball rolling for these elections, the junta claimed a 98% voter turnout, with 92% approval, despite 15% of the country having been left crippled by cyclone Nargis.
Compounding matters are reports that there has been an increase in fighting in border areas where there has been a long-running war between ethnic groups and the Burmese military; and stories of villages being attacked due to assumed affiliation with border rebels are also increasing.
Added to all of this are the 2,200 political prisoners, more than half a million internally displaced persons, 400,000 monks and hundreds of thousands of refugees abroad – all of whom would likely vote opposition in a democratic election; but all of whom cannot vote in Sunday’s election.
How the election will be reported to the rest of the world is also an issue. The ban on foreign journalists and election monitors is intended to lock the country's physical and virtual borders; a campaign that has already seen aggressive aggressive cyber attacks on independent media, the slowing of the country's internet, and a ban on domestic journalists going near the polls.
The international NGO Human Rights Watch along with other world leaders have already issued their view on the upcoming election saying "The international community doesn't need to wait until November 7 to know these elections are rigged from top to bottom," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The group is urging the new government for real change in Burma and calling on the global community to take various steps, including calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, while pressing the new government to respect human rights, commit to an inclusive political process that includes increased access for humanitarian agencies and the media, and increasing the role of civil society and development groups.
The SPDC announced the elections on August 13th and results are expected to take several days to weeks to return.
- HUMNews Staff