Like the old philosophical conundrum about the noise made by a tree falling in a deserted forest, so the recent election in Burma raised the question: if a country goes to the polls and no international observers are there to see it, how does the outside world know elections have taken place at all? Rather than day of celebration, the country’s first elections in two decades took place in muted atmosphere with low turn outs and reports by Burmese observers of widespread voter intimidation and bribery. With international election observers and foreign journalists banned and domestic reporters prevented from going within 50 meters of polling stations, few believe that the vote was free and fair.
No matter how much electoral fraud occurred on the day, the results which swept the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to victory were carefully stage-managed by Burma’s military rulers. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) – the party whose overwhelming majority in the 1990 elections was ignored by the junta – boycotted the elections in protest at the country’s new Constitution which reserves three key ministerial posts for serving generals and 25% of seats in all chambers for the military.
Burma’s military government billed the election as part of its “road map to democracy” after 50 years of military rule, but with little freedom of association, assembly or movement. With strict state control of the media and the electoral process it his hard to see how these elections could be seen as democratic. Millions of ethnic minorities in several states had their ballot cancelled on the grounds that conditions were “not conducive to holding a free and fair election”. In addition, nearly one million stateless Rohingya Muslims and millions of other Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, Malaysia, India were not given the ballot.
In the run up to the election, Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch stated that the elections “are being conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation, and resignation” and are about “elite military transformation rather than democratic transition.” Just three years after the Saffron revolution saw protesting monks grab headlines around the world, Burma’s rulers were determined to prevent these elections from getting much media coverage. They were hopeful that the election result would provide a facade of legitimacy to the new government but with the US, the UK, the EU and Japan condemning the vote, this has clearly not happened.
Despite renewed EU sanctions and a firm trade restrictions against Burma imposed by the US, many international companies continue to invest in Burma, particularly in the oil, gas and electricity sectors, often using financial, insurance and legal services from inside the EU. In addition, there is no UN global arms embargo on Burma and the regime continues to buy foreign weapons, spending nearly half its budget on the military. International journalists and observers may have been banned from Burma but the flawed elections have reminded the world about the repression suffered by the Burmese people and the international community’s responsibility to support their struggle for genuine democracy.
Stefan Simanowitz was in South East Asia at the time of the elections but was not granted a visa to go to Burma. Photo from Al Jazeera.