November 24, 2010

The traces of optimism that had surrounded Burma's first notionally democratic experience for two decades vanish on closer inspection of the outcome, says David Scott Mathieson in Chiang Mai.

The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house-arrest on 13 November 2010 gladdened all those inside and outside the country who hope for progress towards freedom in Burma. But even as she took her first steps to freedom since May 2003, there was a sense that this good-news moment could effectively divert attention from the event held six days earlier: Burma's first general election for twenty years.

There was a modicum of optimism among both Burmese and western policy analysts ahead of the vote on 7 November - not that the elections would produce a rapid change to parliamentary democracy, but rather could promise to be the first step in a long process of peaceful transition from military to civilian rule. The foolproof rigging of the election proved this sentiment to be misplaced.

The results have been incrementally announced in the state-run media over the two weeks since the vote; all are now known. In addition, the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper published a twenty-four-page supplement on 17 November with the ballot-count of each parliamentary seat.

The results

In the national-level upper house, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) - formed and controlled by the military - took over 75% of the seats (128). The USDP also won an almost complete majority from ethnic Burman regions, and around 65% from ethnic states (in these, a handful of ethnic-based parties and other candidates won the remaining seats).  

In the lower-house people's assembly, the USDP won around 80% of the seats (257). Four other parties will also be represented in the assembly: the opposition National Democratic Force (NDF, twelve seats), the National Unity Party (NUP, eight seats), the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP, nine seats), and the Shan Nationalities Democracy Party (SNDP, around eighteen seats).   
In the fourteen regional and state assemblies, there were mixed results.

The USDP won almost everything in most Burman-dominated central regions, such as Tennaserim, Mandalay and Rangoon regions. The NUP picked up a few seats in Pegu and Magway divisions/region, and several in Irrawaddy. In ethnic areas however, the picture was very different. In Arakan, the RNDP took about half the seats, with less than 40% going to the USDP; in Shan state, the SNDP has thirty-six seats along with a sprinkle of other groups such as Pa-O, Karenni, and Inn ethnic parties. The USDP took most seats in Kachin state, but the NUP also gained several and the Kachin and Shan parties won at least one each.

The seats reserved for the military in Burma's parliament (25% of the whole) mean that the military/USDP will have control even if its majority after the popular vote had been slim. There is also endless speculation over how much power the state/regional assemblies will actually have; in all likelihood they will be subordinate assemblies in the massive national-parliament building in the new capitol, Naypyidaw (see "Burma's authoritarian upgrade, 1990-2010", 10 June 2010).

In total, the USDP won more than 875 of the 1,157 seats open to the electorate: buttressed by the seats reserved for the military (25% of the whole) it will have a huge majority.  

The voting turnout was estimated at a high 70%, although some areas reported it at a far lower 30%-50%. Many observers inside Burma reported the procedure to be peaceful and orderly, something guaranteed by the intense process of conditioning the population ahead of 7 November and a heavy security presence (and widespread apathy). But it seems clear that the manipulation was effective enough to undercut the boycott campaign pushed by the now outlawed National League for Democracy (NLD).  

The fix

A series of reports of voter intimidation, fraud and people being turned away from polling-booths has slowly emerged. But the method most employed by the authorities to fix the vote was the use of advance ballots. Here, opposition candidates observing the voting ascertained that they were clearly winning, only to see officials march in with boxes of uncounted advance votes that tipped the majority to a USDP candidate's favour. It will be very difficult to establish details of this fraud; among the evidence is the testimonies weeks ahead of the election that officials were forcing people to vote in advance, or in some cases informing them they had already voted (without telling them how). 

Nai Ngwe Thein, chairman of the All Mon Regions Democracy Party (AMDP), ran for a seat in Mon state and lost to a USDP candidate. He told the Irrawaddy magazine: "I got many votes at the polling stations but found that I had lost when I arrived at the election commission (UEC) office in Kyaikmayaw township because they added 5,000 advance votes that were in a bag. I asked (the commission) to investigate and count the 5,000 advance votes in the bag, but they refused to do it. We lost at some polling stations as we did not have enough people to watch in all of them, so they took every opportunity they could to fix the results. They (the USDP) threaten the people because they want to suppress the whole matter of advance voting."

Many opposition leaders have issued strong statements about the conduct of the vote. Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein of the Democratic Party called the elections "a sham...it was definitely not fair". Khin Maung Shwe of the NDF has said the process "was not a free and fair election".

The NDF opposition, which won only sixteen seats out of the 160 they contested, have announced legal challenges; though the military-controlled electoral commission has warned that any nuisance challenges could be met with three years imprisonment under the draconian electoral laws.

On the day after her release, Aung San Suu Kyi was asked if her party made the right decision to not contest the elections. Laughing, she answered, "Yes, think of how busy those fiddling with the vote would have been if the NLD had run!"

There were high expectations that the National Unity Party - the heirs of the former ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) that lost to the NLD in 1990 - would provide a counterpoint to the military party and its assorted small proxy-parties. Many pundits predicted that the NUP was offering an alternative to the overt military party, in part as it fielded the second highest number of candidates - more than 950 throughout the country. In the event it won just sixty-two, a devastating result given the high cost of participation ($500 just to register a candidate).

Richard Horsey, a former official of the United Nations and International Labour Organisation (ILO) with long experience in Burma, was arguably the most astute western analyst of the elections in 2010. He predicted that the NUP, attracting a wealth of anti-USDP votes, would most likely hold the balance of power in the national assemblies, and that opposition parties would perform extremely well. But ten days after the 2010 election he wrote that the USDP had won a "massive majority" and the voting was "marred by what appears to be massive manipulation of the vote count." 

An illustrative and egregious electoral contest took place in Hpakant township, Kachin state, between former commander of the army's northern region Major-General Ohn Myint (USDP) and the prominent activist Naw Bawk Ja (NDF). Bawk Ja's participation in the elections gave her - a Kachin, already known for her prominence in campaigns against repressive development in the Hukawng valley - a measure of protection from threats by military and business interests. Now her security, as well as others who contested and lost, should be a matter of concern.

The lesson

Nay Win Maung, a prominent "third force" intellectual, magazine editor, and leader of an influential NGO (Myanmar Egress), was a notable proponent of the elections. He campaigned openly for people to participate; lobbied scores of western diplomats on how the elections promised change; and predicted a strong showing for the opposition, and the NUP.  

On 10 November, three days after the elections, he wrote - under his pseudonym "Aung Htut" - a short and contrite piece ("Those Who Climb the Slippery Pole") in his Burmese-language magazine The Voice: "We climbed a slippery pole, knowing it's slippery. I don't think we were wrong. I thought just by climbing it the first time, we would go rather far. That opinion was wrong. I am ready to take any blame for that...I am not reluctant to apologise to the readers for giving them hope, and therefore, I would sincerely like to apologise to the readers." 

Such reactions underline the true significance of this moment. Many who participated in the election throughout the country witnessed a rotten process of authoritarian manipulation of the democratic idea - and understood that to reform Burma's political system and realise free elections one day, realistic hope must prevail. Next time, it won't be so easy for the Burmese military to stage-manage the process.   


David Scott Mathieson is senior researcher on Burma in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

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