Elections in Burma: Important Step Forward or Total Sham?
Image from a rally in London on Burma's election day. From Flickr user My Mundane Life
40,000 polling stations across the Southeast Asian country Burma (Myanmar) opened around 6 a.m. this past Sunday amidst criticisms from leading human rights organizations, media outlets and diplomats--including British Ambassador Andrew Heyn, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama--that the elections cannot be taken seriously.
Polls closed 10 hours later, with turnout as low as 35% in parts of the country. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a non-profit Burmese media organization based in Norway, reported that “estimates of the voter turnout have varied from 45 percent to 60 percent of the 29 million people eligible to participate.” By comparison, during the 1990 election, turnout was estimated at 80%.
Why was turnout so low? General malaise? Low levels awareness about the elections process? Voter intimidation? Or were people heeding the call for boycotts put out by the National League for Democracy, the political party whose landslide victory was flouted by the ruling junta 20 years ago? While NLD's boycott may have played some role, it seems as if the most prominent factor in this election was voter intimidation which, along bribes and vote rigging, led to outbursts of violence that have driven at least 10,000 refugees across the border into Thailand.
The Junta's Clampdown
Across the globe, world leaders and NGOs have questioned the legitimacy and motives of these elections. According to Human Rights Watch, “Political parties not aligned to the military report that the laws on campaigning, distribution of materials, and speeches are being interpreted unfairly to prevent them from campaigning. Candidates were required to pay $500--a huge sum in Burma--to register as a candidate. In the days ahead of the election, two opposition parties, The Democratic Party (DP) and the National Democratic Force (NDF), complained that the USDP was illegally collecting votes in advance, but no action was taken. No polling was allowed in five ethnic regions because the government declared that the unstable atmosphere posed a security threat. No media or photography were allowed inside or around polling stations during the election. (A Japanese reporter was arrested after crossing the Thai-Burmese border on election day).
Also, the country’s primary internet provider has been down for days, the city of Rangoon is under lockdown, Burmese news site The Irrawaddy, based in Thailand, has reported that the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (MPT) sealed off internet access for internet cafes and businesses, the government banned the sale of SIM cards for mobile phones in attempts to stifle electoral competition and prevent news from being shared outside the country, and there have been reports of DDoS attacks against internal websites.
There's even been an upsurge in attacks to the government's own sites, which Mark Belinsky suggests may be traced back to the government itself, which may be attempting to highlight the attack on its own servers as political justification for the cyber warfare its committing against would be dissidents.
While independent foreign monitors were originally banned from observing the election, the Electoral Commission later announced that it was allowing foreign diplomats to observe polling at a select number of voting sites. Diplomats from Europe refused to take part; as reported by the DVB, “British, German, French and Italian diplomats yesterday issued a statement on behalf of the EU declining to take part in the visits, which British Ambassador Andrew Heyn earlier dismissed as a 'choreographed tour.'" Diplomats from Southeast Asian countries, including North Korea, did take part in observations.
Democratic Voice of Burma launched http://www.burma2010election.com/ to track and monitor the elections. Its platform, developed by London-based Unexposed, mapped reports topically by news, analysis, video, violence, arrests, coercion, corruption, illegal activity, and protests. It looks similar to an Ushahidi platform and is available in Burmese and English.
This site is most impressive given that all foreign media has been banned and internet connections have been slowed down, yet sources from inside the country are managing to submit reports. Ahead of election day, the site was populated by news stories from various media with accusations of bias, including:
Katha, 02.11.10 By NAW NOREEN "Civil service workers in Sagaing division have been ordered to vote in advance for the upcoming elections after a directive was issued by district-level authorities."
Rathedaung, 05.11.10 By SHWE AUNG "Authorities in Arakan state are ordering emergency service workers to file votes in advance of the Sunday polls without notifying Burma’s election body."
Yangon, 06.11.10 By JOSEPH ALLCHIN "Three complaints of election fraud that were filed to the Election Commission in the past week have been ignored, an opposition party has said. The Democratic Party Myanmar (DPM) claims that it made multiple complaints about election irregularities to the supreme authority since 29 October, but no response has so far been given. It mirrors similar allegations made recently in Arakan state."
On election day, DVB fielded reports including complaints from voters in Rangoon that they could not cast votes freely because they were being watched closely by pro-junta party candidates.
The site also featured live video coverage in Burmese; reporters were speaking with citizens via mobile phone/Skype.
In this video, the outside of a polling station in Shan state's Lashio town is filmed:
There's also Burma Election Tracker, a product of “extensive collaboration with organizations inside Burma and border-based groups,” which was spearheaded by Burma Partnership. Like the DVB's site, the election tracker fielded reports about voter intimidation and fraud.
The Irrawaddy put up a blog that also hosted recordings of phone conversations with Burmese citizens and photos of the election proceedings.
Late Sunday, the government announced the first batch of results by releasing the names of 57 newly elected parliamentary representatives. 55 of those winners ran unopposed. It’s expected that the rest of the election results will be released in the next few days.
Will these elections be one first small step at chipping away at the junta’s rule? Will there be any shift in the political climate? The New York Times speculates:
“In the new political system the government’s budget, which is now treated as a state secret, would be introduced in Parliament and possibly would be debated. The economy, which until now has been almost totally controlled by the military, might be partly liberalized, allowing Myanmar to follow the path of countries like Vietnam or China, where political freedom remains scarce but businesses flourish and incomes rise.”
While it's true that power shift at the top have historically played a role in nudging a nation away from authoritarianism, there is no guarantee any changes will actually happen. Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said, "Burma's November 7 elections are being conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation, and resignation. These elections are about elite military transformation, not democratic transition, and offer little change to Burma's deplorable human rights situation."
Want to Learn More?
Also, Digital Democracy recently released a report, “Burma/Myanmar Technology Research,” stemming from research they conducted inside the country.