Burma Election Monitor: Spotlighting Abuses in The Electoral Process
Burma recently (Myanmar) held its first multiparty election in 20 years. During the last election, in 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory. The military junta ignored the results, placed Suu Kyi under house arrest (she was released November 13, 2010), and have remained in power ever since.
On November 7, 40,000 polling stations across the Southeast Asian country opened on election day amidst criticisms from leading human rights organizations, media outlets, and diplomats—including British Ambassador Andrew Heyn, Hillary Clinton, and President Obama—about whether the elections could be taken seriously.
What could Burmese citizens and their supporters do to monitor the election and share information about election violations, voter intimidation, and other factors that could muddy the election results?
Burma Partnership spearheaded Burma Election Tracker, an initiative to populate a website with reports of violations during the elections and plot them on a map. Burma Partnership is a network of organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific region, advocating for and mobilizing a movement for democracy and human rights in Burma. They depended on their numerous partners, including inside networks, political and civil society organizations both inside Burma and in exile such as the Burma Lawyer’s Council (BLC) and Burmese Women’s Union (BWU), and media outlets like Burma News International, Democratic Voice of Burma, and the Irrawaddy. (For a full list of participating organizations, visit the Burma Partnership website.)
THE TOOLS AND TACTICS
Burma Partnership received technical assistance from Washington, D.C.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) in building the election tracker site. The site uses Open Street Map's Mapnik to plot reports of violations on a map. The greater the frequency of the type of violation in a particular location, the larger the circle size on the map.
Colors are used to to differentiate between different categories (such as areas where voting was not held, violence and intimidation, not the will of the people, campaign restrictions, government involvement, access to information, fraud), and you can layer categories on top of one another. The overlays help show where different types of election violations or incidents are occurring and if any particular areas in general were sites of more violations.
Submissions came from partners Burma Partnership worked with and knew that they could trust to provide reliable information. This lent greater credibility to the reports and meant that an added step of verifying reports wasn’t needed. As an officer at Burma Partnership related, "For most people inside Burma, contributing to a map such as this would have been too politically risky. We didn't want to put anyone at risk, which is part of the reason why we worked solely through our networks. The people involved in these networks are already committed to the work, and continuously and selflessly put themselves at risk to do this work."
After fielding reports from their various partners, Burma Partnership collected, translated, and disseminated information coming from the ground.
Beginning in mid-September, the site began fielding reports about the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), one of the major military parties, which was abusing its power and threatening and intimidating voters.
Closer to the November 7 election day, numerous reports came in about voters being forced to cast advance ballots, the election commission canceling voting in certain ethnic townships, and officials altering advance ballots.
THE STUMBLING BLOCKS
In a country where media and photography were banned inside and around polling stations during the election and the primary internet provider was shut down, it was obviously challenging to get any news out. The state had allegedly slowed the internet in an effort to prevent the transmission of any news, photos, or videos to the outside. A limited number of outside foreign diplomats took part in monitoring the elections.
To protect the identity and security of reports, events were mapped to townships, regions, or states rather than to exact locations.
The small team at Burma Partnership and their partners were faced with launching the site and building up traffic in a short amount of time. The team was based in Thailand, while their tech team was located in the United States, so they had to juggle with the time difference.
While the junta secured its hold over the country and claimed victory in the election, most critics concluded that the junta secured its victory through voter manipulation and intimidation.
So far, the site has fielded nearly 500 reports. On election day alone, over 150 reports were posted, ranging from the violation of election laws and forced voting to government interference and violence. Since election day, the group has continued to post additional reports and multimedia content. The group acknowledges that “because of the extreme difficulty of collecting information in Burma, we recognize that these reports represent a small portion of similar violations, fraud, and atrocities.” Despite the small number, these reports offered a glimpse into the electoral process and what ordinary citizens were encountering on election day. The site generated a lot of international media attention. Since foreign journalists were banned from entering the country, the site proved to be a resource. According to NDI, the majority of visitors to the site have come from the United States and Thailand and a lot of traffic came from mentions of the site on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Following the election, the Burma Partnership stated:
“Based on the reports that we have collected prior to election day, on the day of the elections, and in the post-election period, the elections have proven to be a completely flawed process that exploited the widespread climate of fear in Burma to retain military rule.”
“The reports that we have gathered demonstrate that these elections were deeply flawed, and were fundamentally illegitimate, unfree, unfair, and undemocratic; further, they highlight how the regime manipulated the deeply entrenched sense of fear in Burma to ensure compliance with their electoral process.”
In the days immediately after the election, additional reports streamed in with news of shooting between the pro-junta Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the SPDC Border Guard Force, which led many ethnic villagers to flee across the Thai border. Burma Partnership plans to keep the site online to serve as a resource about how the elections unfolded.blog comments powered by Disqus