Burma Elections 2015

Burma Elections 2015

Under military rule since 1962, Burma will on November 8 hold its first contested national elections since 1990, when the military annulled an overwhelming victory by the opposition National League for Democracy. While the reform process begun in 2011 has led to significant human rights improvements in areas such as freedom of expression and association, the process has gone into reverse in the past two years, with increasing numbers of politically motivated arrests and the passage of discriminatory laws aimed at the Rohingya and the broader Muslim community. Parliamentary elections are seen as both a milestone and a test of the military-backed government’s commitment to the reform process and as the first, key step toward building a democratic state. While mass campaign rallies are a welcome sign of change, the lack of an independent election commission, ruling party dominance of state media, and mass disenfranchisement of voters remain as key concerns. In the days leading up to and following the election a team of Human Rights Watch staff will be monitoring the electoral process and the human rights situation in the country.

Voices of Change

(Rangoon) – One week after the election, with 99 percent of results announced, the National League for Democracy’s overwhelming victory points to a clear consensus among Burmese voters in their support for the NLD’s refrain, “Time for change.”

Supporters outside National League for Democracy headquarters (NLD) in Rangoon on November 9. © 2015 Reuters

Throughout the two-month campaign period, the NLD’s slogan, theme song, and stump speeches all reiterated the theme of change for Burma. “The country needs change. That is why we say, ‘Time for change’ – to reflect the will of the people,” Aung San Suu Kyi said to the crowd of 40,000 gathered in Rangoon a week before the election. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had picked up the thread with its late campaign promise, “We have been changing,” but to little effect. In Irrawaddy Region, President Thein Sein’s final hometown speech came with a rebuttal to the NLD buzzword: “We have changed from a military regime to a democratic government elected by the people. What more change do you want?”

In the wake of NLD’s victory, the question now shifts to whether the election can truly bring genuine change, given the flawed 2008 constitution that reserves 25 percent of parliament seats for the military and blocks Suu Kyi from the presidency.

With the challenges of negotiations and power transfer ahead, it’s worth returning to the voices of voters from around the country in response to a question we posed in the weeks leading up to the election: Do you think November 8 can bring real change?

Here are some of their answers.

“If it is free enough – I don’t think about fair elections – but if it is free, I think some things will change. At least we can see some cohesion in parliament. But it cannot change the important things, because the army still has 25 percent of parliament. They still choose the three major ministers. All the bureaucracy, the General Administration Department and so on, will still be under the military.”

“The elections alone cannot fix our problems. But we must have the right to select our leaders.”

A woman shows her inked finger after casting her ballot in Rangoon on November 8. © 2015 Reuters

“Maybe things will change – but we need educated voters who critically think about the future of our country.”

“For the country to change, we have two needs. Peace and economic development. Will this happen?”

“Change will be hard but possible. We need more engagement with organizations who work for a common purpose, and then we can change something.”

“People think the NLD will bring change and solve everything. They have too high expectations. We will only have more problems.”

“Thein Sein says, ‘We changed.’ You changed, yeah, yeah, you changed the color, you changed the uniform. That’s it.”

“We all expect real democracy. This is our first priority, to be a real democratic country. I want to change us to a real democracy ­– but this means all people have to be included.”

“It is not only the inside of the constitution that needs change, it is the structures – of parliament, the military. We have to fight from the outside, from the community. Twenty-five percent of parliament is military. They hold the power. It is impossible to change from the inside alone.”

“If the UEC [Union Election Commission] is free and fair, the election will result in a real [government]. But it is not enough to change the outside. You have to change the mindset.”

“After 2012, 2013, I saw positive change. Now I don’t see positive change. Whatever may be the 2015 election results, there are no military–civilian relations. So the military can just seize power, like Thailand.”

“We need education. The mentality of the government and of the military will not change. They still remain in power doing the same things. One thing I hope for the future is that we have some more freedom. However, that cannot satisfy the situation. We have to work to extend our space. I’ve seen space for civil and political societies expand. We want more and more.”

“I hope there will be change. There are two things we need to focus on first ­­– the education system, and decentralization.”

Supporters outside National League for Democracy headquarters (NLD) in Rangoon on November 9. © 2015 Reuters

“Yes we have big hopes. Big hopes mean we need real change. Change to the system, governance, legal reform, and education. People’s perspective needs to be changed too. We used to have a really good education system, used to respect each other, and used to listen to each other. Now the younger generation is changed because of the weak education system. I feel that we are losing our traditional culture of being kind and gentle. We need change to find those kind of value systems again.”

“When the wind comes, you can try to move your boat. But if it’s still tied to the edge of the harbor, it won’t go anywhere.”

“I hope so, because I want to hold events like human rights days with easy and open permission. I want to host regional conferences. I want the change so that it is easy to learn.”

At the Polls

Striving for Rights through Politics in Kachin

(Myitkyina) ­– Despite their concerns about an election process that they see as flawed, some Kachin activists are seeking change through politics by contesting the November 8 elections. Mar Khar is a human rights lawyer. He loses most of his cases, he says, laughing. “As a lawyer and human rights activist, I don’t feel so powerful,” he said. “But if I am in government, then I can advocate for human rights.”

Mar Khar is a candidate for the Kachin Democratic Party (KDP) who is hoping to win a seat in the state legislature from Myitkyina. With a long running civil war, he notes that there are many serious human rights violations by the military deployed to fight against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and other armed groups operating in Kachin state. Mar Khar says that ethnic minorities in the country are regarded as nanning, or inferior, and adds that this is the reason Burmese soldiers believe they can subject them to a range of human rights violations including torture, extrajudicial executions, and enforced disappearances. “The number of human rights violations committed by the military is very high. But only a few cases can be raised [with the authorities]. Especially in the rural areas, people are afraid even to report these crimes.”

He shows pictures on his phone of a man that escaped military custody after severe torture. “The victim wanted to file a case, but his family was too worried about what might happen and discouraged him.” He described the case of two teachers who were allegedly raped and murdered by soldiers in January 2014, a charge that the Burma army denies. The military, he says, suspects every Kachin as a rebel supporter. “If you are Kachin, the military thinks they can kill you at any time.”

Bawk Ja of the National Democratic Force (NDF) says she knows this well. After receiving threats to her life from one of her military political opponents in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), she is no longer running from her Hpakant constituency. She is contesting from Mytikyina instead.

I want to win my seat so I am able to raise the issues of land grabbing in parliament. Military cronies are now dominating parliament. But when I raise these issues, the people will support me. I will be able to convince the military.
Bawk Ja

Bawk Ja is leading a campaign against forced evictions and confiscation of land, particularly by the Yuzana company, which she says is owned by members of the military. She ran against former military general Ohn Myint in the 2010 election. Despite her significant initial lead, the Union Election Commission (UEC) eventually declared Ohn Myint the winner. She filed a complaint alleging voter fraud. In July 2013, she was arrested, she says, on politically trumped up charges, and was in prison for six months. But she is undeterred. “If I was contesting in Hpakant, I would win,” she says. “But even in Mytikyina, people are becoming more and more aware about illegal land confiscation because of my campaign.”

She thinks that the elections will not be free and fair. She points out a list of problems, including deeply flawed voter lists, and an election process that is biased towards the ruling party. But she still plans to try. “I want to win my seat so I am able to raise the issues of land grabbing in parliament. Military cronies are now dominating parliament. But when I raise these issues, the people will support me. I will be able to convince the military.”

Both Mar Khar and Bawk Ja are enjoying recent victories as rights activists.

The Supreme Court recently acquitted one of Mar Khar’s clients, Brang Yung, although it upheld the conviction of Lapai Gun, who was convicted for exactly the same crimes – both were accused of supporting the KIA. Brang Yung is still in jail, however, because the court order mistyped his prison identification number. Their wives, among the many internally displaced by the war, are waiting anxiously for Mar Khar to finish his election campaign so he can focus on the case. Mar Khar says he will continue his work as a human rights lawyer even if he wins. “I want to fight for the truth,” he says.

In June 2015, in an unprecedented gesture, the military returned about 200 acres of land it had previously confiscated in Samaw to over 50 households. Bawk Ja says this is the result of appeals from the community. She had written to members of parliament, the speaker, and the president. “I think it is possible for things to improve,” she says. “I can act as a mediator between the local people and the military.”

Both activists know that it will be a tough contest. There are multiple parties that will divide the vote. But it is an opportunity for human rights to win. Said Dau Nyoi, a local activist: “Many political parties talk about peace. Some talk about federalism. But none of them say much about justice and human rights.”

The Drumbeat of Voter Awareness

(Nyaung Shwe) – When Burma’s polling stations open tomorrow at 6 a.m., the local election observers of Justice Drum, a Shan State civil society collective, will be on the road much earlier, on motorbikes traversing dirt tracks 70 miles into the mountains as they head to reach isolated villages. The enthusiastic and committed staff of Justice Drum have, like many Burmese organizations, been feverishly busy on voter education for months, accessing many isolated and undeveloped communities in their area. The Burmese speakers of Justice Drum will need translators, as very few of the Pa-O and other ethnic groups in the nearby hills speak or read Burmese, the language used on all the ballot papers.

A t-shirt logo of member of Justice Drum in Taunggyi, Southern Shan State. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

In this part of Shan State, a region populated by large numbers of ethnic Pa-O, Intha, and Shan ethnic groups, voter education must contend not just with rugged geography and poor roads, but also the large numbers of parties who are in the race. It’s not just the ruling Union State and Development Party (USDP) and the National League for Democracy (NLD), the two parties contesting nationally, but also two major Shan parties who are vying for dominance, as well as competing parties of Pa-O and Intha seeking local votes. On top of this, many local residents still hold residual fears of the security forces and officialdom, and what comes after Sunday’s polls.

The members of Justice Drum are enthusiastic about the elections, but realistic over how much it will or will not change people’s lives. One of them told me, “The campaigning has been great, it gives us the chance to be victorious. But we [CBOs] are still scared. How will normal people feel? They are still scared.” When asked if the process promises great democracy, he agrees, but then replies, “But what use is democracy if the laws are still there? The constitution is still there.” He said there was no violence, no overt intimidation, and that a Special Branch informer who tailed them was actually quite practically helpful: “He would help us along the way and take us places.” Voter education events in monasteries were not overshadowed by the Buddhist monk ultra-nationalist group the Ma Ba Tha, implicated in voter intimidation in several other areas around Burma.

A Union Elections Commission voter awareness poster on a fence lining the road near Nyaung Shwe, Southern Shan State. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

All the party signs that have dotted the countryside for two months were taken down here on Friday, as per elections rules. As Justice Drum hits the road early tomorrow to observe elections in some of Burma’s most isolated areas, they will however pass voter education posters that do remain on trees, fences, and billboards, reminding people every vote counts. While much attention for these elections will be directed at large urban areas, prominent candidates, and potential trouble spots of communal tensions, the work of including many marginalized people in these parts of Shan State wracked by conflict since the 1950s is a good example of the generally positive voter awareness campaign that marks these polls.

In the Mon Battleground

(Moulmein) – It’s a quiet afternoon at the Mon National Party (MNP) headquarters in Moulmein’s Myaingtharyar quarter. The printing machines are shut off; rolled up campaign banners lean along the walls. Political campaigns have come to a close for a brief interlude before Sunday’s polls, and the local candidates sit drinking tea in the silence that follows weeks of campaign rally din.

Naing Ngwe Theim and Naing Ngwe Thein, the chair and vice-chair of the Mon National Party, read the party's political policies. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

Naing Ngwe Theim, the 94 year old party chair, and Naing Ngwe Thein, his 80 year old number two, talk about the trajectory of their party ­– one of two major Mon political groups ­– in terms alternately confident and resigned. The electoral process’ fundamental flaws are in many ways magnified within the borders of ethnic parties’ campaigns. The constitutional provision which guarantees 25 percent of national parliamentary seats to serving military officers also applies to regional and state parliaments. In Mon State, this means military representatives hold 8 of the 31 seats, leaving ethnic parties with an uphill battle toward securing a majority in their home states. Regional and state chief ministers are also presidential appointees. With political power almost fully centralized in Naypyidaw, an ethnic majority in state parliament would still wield little autonomy or control.

For members of the Mon community, these structural inequalities are viewed merely as one element in a long and wide narrative of repression under majority Bamar rule. Burma’s ethnic minority groups, which account for as much as 40 percent of the population, have been engaged in decades-long armed conflict with the military regime in their struggle for self-determination, recognition of ethnic rights, a federal government system, and equality.

Nay Lin Oo, a Mon human rights activist, recounts how his father fled to the jungle in 1962 when General Ne Win abolished the Mon People’s Front (MPF), arresting all Mon leaders and anyone who attempted to teach Mon language or culture. Forty-five years later, Naing Ngwe Theim was arrested during a mass detention of ethnic leaders as part of the crackdown following the September 2007 prodemocracy protests. “They colonized us by will, now they colonize us by ethnic and social [means],” Nay Lin Oo says, reflecting on the government’s layers of control.

We are still suffering from what the government has done to us in the past. So we have to compete.
Naing Ngwe Thein

Mon National Party

Tomorrow, eleven parties will be fielding candidates to compete for the state’s 1.5 million eligible voters. The campaign period has been strenuous for the MNP candidates and party leadership, who have faced funding shortages, struggles with the Union Election Commission (UEC), and contention with the competing Mon party, the All Mon Region Democratic Party (AMDP). An attempted merger between the two parties broke down earlier this year after a leadership struggle, rued by many activists in light of the resulting vote dilution and confusion for voters. “We have a lot of choice but everyone is confused. They don’t know the difference, what the candidates stand for,” Joan Tha Man from Mon Progressive Youth said in reference to what he labeled the “two party problem.”

Naing Ngwe Thein has limited faith in the UEC, who he says “cheated” in the 2010 elections and remains a biased and ill-equipped institution. He reports that the final voter lists in Mon State are error-laden and inflated; MNP information officer Nai San Hlaing says his family of four has eight members showing up on the list. After the 2010 elections, 37 ethnic parties met with the UEC to lodge complaints that were never addressed. “We don’t trust them,” Naing Ngwe Thein says, “but we have to participate in the election anyhow.”

The four Mon National Party candidates running in the city of Moulmein. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

Distrust of the commission grew in September when voting was cancelled due to “security concerns” in 33 villages in Karen State, where the population of 20,000 is 80 percent Mon. Villagers in the area, which is under New Mon State Party (NMSP) control, sent a petition challenging the decision, viewed by many Mon leaders as a USDP tactic to disenfranchise ethnic voters. The Mon State police force has also recently announced that it will recruit Tatmadaw (Burmese military) officers to provide security at 67 polling stations across the state where they have identify risk of “sudden violence,” a potentially intimidating factor for villages where the Tatmadaw has been a longstanding aggressor. 

For many in Moulmein, Sunday doesn’t warrant the buoyant optimism seen in other areas around Burma. “Even though there are a lot of us, I have not too much hope for the election,” Joan Tha Man says. Activists expressed fears about the high levels of apathy and confusion among Mon citizens, especially in rural areas, that may contribute to a low turnout. Even if Mon ethnic party candidates win across the board, they still face a centralized government, enshrined military power, and an immovable constitution. For ethnic parties, the fight is different than NLD’s climb to the top – it is about visibility and representation, regardless how shallow; about having a seat at the table; and about the process of attempting to insert a thin wedge of autonomous decision-making into an otherwise rigged system.

After Naing Ngwe Thein recounts the various dead-end efforts over the past few years to make changes from within parliament, I ask him why they continue to contest elections that offer little in winning. He answers in Mon, a language they fear is disappearing due to the government’s ban on ethnic languages in the state curriculum. “We are still suffering from what the government has done in the past,” he says. “So we have to compete.”

A Dark Spring

(Taunngyi) – In the last week of Burma’s national elections, President Thein Sein’s office began a state television campaign to justify his administration’s performance since taking office in March 2011. The four minute TV slot begins with ominously rising rock music and the words, ”With the taste of the spring at the time…but which the different flavor [sic],” and then opens a rapid fire series of images comparing Burma’s top-down, managed transition with graphic scenes of the Arab Spring and political instability in the Middle East.

From the large demonstrations in Cairo, to conflict in Libya and Syria, the video then cuts to images of Burmese tranquility, order, and progress: the president and senior ministers meeting people who greet them in adulation; pictures of peace talks, smiling babies, and clowns; the president meeting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and various world leaders; and the president holding a summit on economic reform.

The video cuts next to images of continued carnage in the Middle East, the Mediterranean boat people crisis, dead children on the shores of Turkey, and acts of terrorism and fighting. But then it returns to Burma with images of mosques, Hindu temples, Christian churches, and Buddhist pagodas, suggesting the presence of religious harmony and tolerance that in fact Thein Sein’s government has seriously fractured with its courting of anti-Muslim forces pushing an extremist religious agenda. Most telling is the final set of images and footage that show the Burmese military during the annual armed forces day parade, making clear to any viewer that it is the military that props up the civilian government and has defined the lines of the transition.

The video sparked outraged responses on Burmese social media. In fact, the response was similar to that which met an earlier Thein Sein video released in the starting days of the campaign in September. That video touted Thein Sein’s achievements and ended with a direct nod to rising religious ultra-nationalism by denying Rohingya Muslims were from Burma, and taking credit for the passing of the four discriminatory, rights abusing “race and religion laws” in August.

Any realistic assessment of the human rights condition in Burma could have shown scenes of this year’s Rohingya Muslim boat crisis, the squalid conditions in the internally displaced camps in Arakan State, civilians fleeing escalating fighting between the military and Shan rebels just this week, or the destructive war in Kachin State that started the year Thein Sein took office. The war with the Kachin has killed hundreds and seen over 130,000 people displaced, many of whom will either vote beside their squalid camps or will be denied the right to vote. That video could also display images of students being savagely beaten by police near Letpadan in March this year, or watching people being arrested for posting funny images of the military online.

The final line of President Thein Sein’s end of election campaign video sounds like an eerie, intimidating throwback to previous military governments when it proclaims, “Only when peace prevails will democracy be implemented.” Many people in Burma would reverse that formulation, and argue that only when genuine democracy is implemented will peace prevail in Burma. The elections tomorrow are another step in a long, arduous journey to achieve just that.

A Quarter Century

(Moulmein) – Thiri Mon sits at a student desk in a small schoolroom off Pabedan Road, a few blocks north of the Thanlwin riverbank. The room is filled with English textbooks and photographs from China, England, and northern Burma. She sips pomelo juice while talking about her students, her daughters, and her city – Moulmein, where she has lived for over 30 years. When I ask if she voted in the 1990 elections she nods, “Yes, of course. Around the corner from here. But that was a long time ago.”

The elections held on May 27, 1990 took place in a surprisingly free and fair environment, leading to a National League for Democracy (NLD) landslide with 80 percent of parliamentary seats. The military government responded by annulling the vote, placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and imprisoning dozens of opposition MPs. Scores fled across the Thai border in exile. Those that remained faced decades under the authoritarian military regime.

The upcoming vote will be the first widely-contested national elections since those held 25 years ago, but life in Burma is still filtered through 60 years of military rule and repression. Political parties’ organizational capacity is low, as is voter awareness.

Thiri Mon describes her concerns from the vantage of someone who has seen freedom given, then taken away. “People are excited for change, we all would like it. A leader having lots of followers is good, but leaders need to bring up more leaders. I am worried about the candidates. They are not politicians.”

She talks about seeing the opposition rallies in the streets, the supporters’ verve and excitement. “They want the NLD to win, but what happens afterward?” She is speaking carefully, with brief asides in Burmese to the three students who have arrived early for their afternoon class. “This is a worry of older people, maybe. Young ones, they say, ‘Yeah, change!’ They don’t know what to expect.” She pauses, then says, “I don’t know, maybe that is better.”

Burma Elections: Trouble in Kachin?

(Myitkyina) – The speeches are done, the songs have stopped. The election campaign has ended in Burma. The posters are gradually coming down, and supporters are putting away their party t-shirts, caps, and stickers for the day of silence on November 7 before polling starts early the next morning.

In Mytikyina in Kachin State, international election monitors are already arriving. But large portions of the state are inaccessible to foreigners because of ongoing armed conflict. It is local Burmese monitors, 284 of them, who are deploying in these sensitive areas.

Thomas Mung Dan of the Humanity Institute is poring over maps. He jabs at various corners where there are gaps. “It is the area they call ‘orange’ because of the conflict.” In some places, polling has already been canceled. In others, people will not be able to vote because there was no voter registration in rebel-held areas.

“We are worried because of security in some of these places,” he said. Other regions are simply too remote to be easily accessed. “There are no phones, no transport,” he said. Burmese groups will deploy local residents as observers. But to reach some of the polling booths in Chipwi and Tsawlaw, observers will have to travel through neighboring China.

Election monitors are already anticipating serious problems because of shortcomings during advance voting. The election commission permitted the old and the infirm to vote in advance, but didn’t seem to have set criteria on eligibility. Others decided to take advantage as well, to dodge the queue, get their day of rest, or attend church services because elections will be held on Sunday.

It is the area they call ‘orange’ because of the conflict. We are worried because of security in some of these places. There are no phones, no transport.
Thomas Mung Dan

Humanity Institute

Advance voting has exposed some serious concerns. Despite efforts by the election commission, international experts, and Burmese civil society groups, voter education still leaves a lot to be desired. Many of the voters are confused by the ballot sheets – there are 93 parties in the running – and unable to properly identify and select their candidates. They are also bewildered by the fact that they have to select candidates for the national parliament as well as regional assemblies. “There will be a lot of invalid votes,” said Mung Dan. “People don’t know parties, candidates, whether they have to cast one vote, or two, or three.”

Representatives of the Union Election Commission (UEC) seemed unclear about their roles as well. Members of contesting parties and observers were invited to the advance polling. They milled around as voters stamped their ballot papers, undermining one of the most important principles of an election – a secret ballot. Some commission officials happily took pictures, unaware that this was forbidden. “There is much commitment to transparency, but this was perhaps a little too transparent,” Mung Dan said.

Of greatest concern is that in some cases the election commission failed to produce ballot boxes, meaning voters had to drop their ballots into an open sack. This raises the possibility, even likelihood, of ballot stuffing. Election commission officials excused this lapse, explaining that some of their staff did not quite know how to use and seal the ballot boxes. “These are serious problems,” sighed Mung Dan. “Is it because of their lack of skill, or an intentional mistake? I don’t know.”

Burma Elections: Magic in Pyin Oo Lwin

(Pyin Oo Lwin) – Pyin Oo Lwin Township, in the northeast corner of Mandalay Region, is an important center for Burma’s armed forces and police. Multiple walled compounds there contain national-level military, police, and other academies, where senior officers train their subordinates and successors. A local historian says military men and women and their dependents comprise 20,000 of the Pyin Oo Lwin’s total population of around 180,000 and points out that the army considers the township a strategic gateway to areas further north and east where it has fought with ethnic minority insurgents for decades.

Historically, it has been a crossroads for trade, which has helped give it a multicultural character, one aspect of which is the presence of what a local Muslim community leader estimates is an Islamic population of 10,000 – composed of various ethnicities who attend perhaps a dozen small mosques in the township. There are also a number of Christians and one very large church. However, the majority of the population is Buddhist, and one senior Buddhist abbot estimates there are approximately 2,000 monks and nuns, and hundreds of novices, in two major pagodas and “dozens and dozens” of smaller pagodas and monasteries.

A National League for Democracy supporter trains election scrutineers ahead of Sunday's general election in Pyin Oo Lwin on November 6. © 2015 Reuters

Candidates and other officials of the leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), say the party campaign activities in Pyin Oo Lwin have not been interfered with. Speaking on the last day of campaigning at the township party headquarters, across from one of Pyin Oo Lwin’s military academies, those party officials recounted that there had been two major rallies to mark visits by high-ranking NLD delegations from the party headquarters in Rangoon, numerous smaller gatherings, some door-to-door efforts to distribute NLD handbills in party-friendly neighbourhoods, and free roadside distributions and sales from stalls of NLD headbands, face-stickers, and flags.

They added that there have been no significant attempts by state security forces, government officials, pro-government parties, or their political allies to deter or disrupt such campaign activities. At the same time, as one key NLD organizer on the township committee put it, there has been a “lack of resistance” within the party and among its supporters. Asked to explain, he said that fear of the government’s military potential in Pyin Oo Lwin has made people “reluctant to be as active and vocal as they wanted to be.”

The major NLD complaint heard locally is what several of them called as “voter roll magic,” by which they allege names have “magically” appeared and disappeared from the voter list. As in other places in Burma, these local NLD officials suspect government-friendly local election sub-commissions are finagling to exclude NLD supporters and illicitly include NLD opponents, above all members of the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP).

The NLD claims local USDP officials make no secret of the party’s links to military power in the township, nor of its sympathy for a “racial and religious ultra-nationalism” that the NLD accuses the army of attempting to promote. To back the allegation of electoral fraud, NLD activists produced originals of the flimsy white bits of paper used as voter identification that the activists claimed were in the names of dead people or people who otherwise do not exist.

They also made available for interview NLD supporters who stated that although they had voted in several previous elections in Pyin Oo Lwin, their names had mysteriously disappeared from first version of the voter roll made public in the township, and that despite their requests had not been restored in the second version of the list. Many NLD officials and supporters declared that the fact that two days before voting, the sub-commission had still failed to make public on schedule a third, final official list was intensifying fear of “more conjuring” and “general confusion” among would-be voters. They argued this was having a demobilizing effect on parts of the pro-NLD electorate.

They also expressed concern about the possible demoralizing impact of fears of post-election violence should the NLD win too many votes, precipitating a possibly shocked reaction from the military, the USDP, and what they called “sorcerers.” They explained that by this they meant, among others, emergent elements within the Pyin Oo Lwin Buddhist monkhood of the Ma Ba Tha (the Association to Protect Race and Religion), a chief proponent of racial and religious ultra-nationalism, which targets Muslims in particular as outside and enemies of the nation. They said they were alarmed by a recent Ma Ba Tha movement leadership statement characterizing anyone opposing Ma Ba Tha activities as “a destroyer” of the Burmese nation.

In separate interviews on November 6, several senior Buddhist monks in Pyin Oo Lwin denounced Ma Ba Tha, asserting it was born out of what they claimed has been a largely failed attempt by the military and USDP to co-opt Burmese Buddhism as a “tool of the state they control.” By their accounts, this effort has been widely resisted within a Buddhist monkhood that they said has historically stood morally with Buddhists and others against authoritarian and divisive misdeeds in Burma. The result, they maintained, was not co-optation, but creation of Ma Ba Tha as an extremist fringe splinter within Buddhism.

The Pyin Oo Lwin monks interviewed proudly stated that resistance to its “unethical political tactics” has been particularly effective in their township, with the overwhelmingly majority of Pyin Oo Lwin monks and other Buddhists continuing to favor interreligious, interethnic tolerance, understanding, and cooperation in the interests of the population as a whole. Muslim community leaders in Pyin Oo Lwin corroborated this, as did several local lay Buddhist writers and artists. Still, one of the Muslim dignitaries asked not only that he not be named, but that no photograph of his place of worship be taken, because “it might end up on Facebook, and maybe one day Ma Ba Tha will make trouble.”

Burma Elections: Biased Commission Undermines Polls

(Myitkyina) – "We have been very concerned by the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the UEC [Union Election Commission] to hold free and fair elections," National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi said during her final press conference before Burma goes to the polls on November 8. "We have repeatedly made complaints about the way in which some parties and individuals have been breaking the rules and regulations laid down by the election commission, but very little action has been taken."

Tin Aye, chairman of Burma's election commission, gives a speech at the 2015 general elections Code of Conduct signing in Rangoon, Burma on June 26, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

Aung San Suu Kyi was alluding to the obvious bias in the UEC, which runs the election at the national and local levels. On Thursday the UEC issued a statement decrying the criticism it has been subjected to for the election’s shortcomings, particularly by the NLD.

It is hardly surprising that a commission led and staffed by former military officers would not be impartial. The chairman, U Tin Aye, is a former army general and member of parliament from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In June he made his views clear: “As a chairman, I am not supposed to have attachment to the party…. I have an attachment, but I don’t put it at the forefront of my mind…. I want the USDP to win, but to win fairly, not by cheating.”

I want the USDP to win, but to win fairly, not by cheating.
U Tin Aye

Union Election Commission Chairman

While promising that the 2015 elections would be free and fair, he said they would be conducted in “disciplined democracy style,” using rhetoric closely associated with past Burmese military governments. On March 27, during the annual Armed Forces Day parade in the capital, Naypyidaw, Tin Aye wore his military uniform during the ceremony, saying: “I would give up my life to wear my uniform. I wear it because I want to. That’s why I wear it even if I have to quit [the UEC] because of that. But there is no law saying I should resign for wearing [my] uniform.”

Other parties are also worried about UEC bias. The commission has rejected nearly a hundred candidate applications, most of them by Muslims, because the authorities now claim that their parents were not recognized as citizens at the time of the candidate’s birth. This is odd, as some had been elected in previous elections. For instance, the UEC rejected the candidacy of Shwe Maung, a Rohingya lawmaker from the ruling USDP. He had planned to run as an independent candidate in this election.

Of the 6,074 approved candidates, 5,130 are Buddhist, 903 Christian and just 28, or 0.5 percent, are Muslim,  a sliver of the the percentage of Muslims in the general population .  This is only partly due to discriminatory decisions by the UEC. The main parties have also shown extreme bias: to stave off criticism from the racist and Buddhist nationalist Ma Ba Tha, which campaigns against Muslim citizenship and in favor of legal discrimination against Muslims in Burma, both the NLD and the USDP have no Muslim candidates. 

Despite a massive effort supported by international organizations, there are also persistent concerns about accuracy of voter lists compiled by the UEC. Some 6.5 million people out of a total of 32 million have submitted corrections to the initial list.  Aung San Su Kyi mentioned at her press conference that the UEC had vouched for only 30 percent of the voter list. Here in Mytikyina in Kachin State, one man told me that his details are still not correct despite numerous attempts to correct them. “There may be many more problems,” he said.

UEC bias may also show up in how complaints are resolved. Election procedures still lack appropriate mechanisms for addressing complaints. Complaints will be brought before ad hoc tribunals set up under the UEC, with a panel of three arbiters comprised of election commissioners. But in violation of international norms, complainants can only appeal a tribunal’s final decision to the UEC, whose ruling is final and made without judicial oversight. As in other countries, such as Cambodia, where the post-election period has been extremely contentious because of the lack of impartiality of the national election commission, this is where things could unravel. Aung San Suu Kyi said she was worried whether election officials will adequately respond to allegations of irregularities. “If it looks too suspicious then I think we will have to make a fuss about it,” she said.

The Burmese people appear enthusiastic about the election, but also extremely nervous. The UEC chairman, however, is asking voters to believe in the process, to trust only results announced by the commission. That is easier said than done when the request comes from a man who has made it clear who he wants to win.

Burma Elections: The Lady Speaks

(Rangoon) – On Thursday, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi gave her final press conference to local and international media crammed under a tent on the lawn of her residence, No. 54 University Avenue, ahead of Sunday’s polls. The opposition leader’s message mixed defiance with determination, criticizing the electoral system as neither free nor fair and the military-drafted 2008 constitution as “silly,” downplaying the human rights and humanitarian disaster facing Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State, and repeatedly forecasting a resounding victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Sunday’s polls, which she said will elevate her to an authority “above” whomever becomes president.

In front of so many journalists, Suu Kyi appeared drawn but confident, yet her demeanor reflected the end of a hard-fought election contest and she was terse in many of her answers. She appeared very serious, not surprising after years of dealing with an intransigent Burmese military, and seeing her erstwhile ally, parliamentary speaker Thura Shwe Mann, purged recently from the leadership of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) ­– an unlikely alliance which now appears even shakier. She exhibited little of the charm and jocularity she once seduced the international press with.

Suu Kyi’s main message on the election was it was neither free nor fair and the election commission should shoulder that blame, stating she had seen “very little action on the part of the commission.” She stated that “it is up to us to try and fill the gap” of the elections technical shortcomings. She noted problems with advance voting from overseas, and especially thanked Burmese migrant workers in Thailand who had returned to their townships to vote.

There were rumblings of concern afterward by many in the media over her determination to reinterpret the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which allows the military to appoint 25 percent of the seats, gives the military the right to appoint key ministers and overrule the government, and, in section 59(f), disqualifies Suu Kyi from becoming Burma’s next president even if her party wins the election and would otherwise use its votes in parliament to elect her. Suu Kyi made the bold claim that if she was prime minister she would be able to instruct the president, saying that the prime minister would run the government.

There is no law that says the constitution is eternal.... If the support of the people is strong enough, I don’t see why we should not be able to overcome a 'minor problem' like amending the constitution.
Aung San Suu Kyi

Suu Kyi said several times she had a “plan” and would be in fact above the president. “I’ll run the government. I’ll make the decisions and the president will follow these directives. The title of president is not important, the democratic leadership is what is important.… I have a plan.”

Suu Kyi sharply criticized the 2008 Constitution, saying, “We shouldn’t use the word silly to refer to a constitution, but this is a very silly constitution.” She also expressed determination to amend the constitution, despite the military’s successful blocking of many proposed amendments with its unelected block of MPs. “There is no law that says the constitution is eternal. Even in this constitution, there are provisions for changing it – but with great difficulty, I admit. But I don’t think that is something that should be seen as an impossible obstacle. If the support of the people is strong enough, I don’t see why we should not be able to overcome a ‘minor problem’ like amending the constitution.”

Suu Kyi was also sadly consistent in her failure to speak out on the situation of Rohingya Muslims and the communal conflict in Arakan State, which has drawn sustained international criticism since violence erupted in 2012:

I think it’s very important that we should not exaggerate the problems in this country.… [One] should remember the Burmese saying: You have to make big problems small, and small problems disappear. It’s not a question of trying to exaggerate small problems into big ones and big ones to an extent where they are totally unmanageable. I’m not saying that this is a small problem. I would promise everybody who is living in this country proper protection in accordance with the law and in accordance with the norms of human rights.

But when asked whether she will amend or repeal the flawed 1982 Citizenship Law which has been used to render the Rohingya stateless, she undermined her claim to be above the president and said such an undertaking was up to the parliament.

One thing is clear: in Burma’s deeply flawed political system where the military still monopolizes power, change will be limited and human rights will still be at risk, regardless of who wins on Sunday.

1 per 10,000

(Rangoon) – On election day, approximately 50,000 polling stations will be opened across the country. Of those, only five ­– three in Rangoon, one in Mandalay, and one in Irrawaddy – are universally designed for people with disabilities.

The Myanmar Independent Living Initiative (MILI), a Burmese NGO that promotes the rights of persons living with disabilities, has been working with the Union Election Commission (UEC) since 2012 to help design an accessible electoral process. Resource limitations, however, have curbed their efforts’ scope and efficiency – evident in the minute number of accessible polling stations.

“We don’t expect 100 percent [accessibility] because the UEC doesn’t have the resources to develop new infrastructure,” MILI’s founder Nay Lin Soe said. “We just want to have proper support and accessible conditions to where we can enjoy our rights.”

People with disabilities face serious social and institutional discrimination in Burma, where awareness of disability rights is low and negative stereotypes high. According to the 2014 census, Burma has 2.4 million people with disabilities, of which MILI estimates 1.5 million are eligible voters.

Organizations of persons with disabilities (DPOs) point out that in Burma, disability rights are seen as a non-politicized issue. The authorities have been more proactively engaged, as opposed to with other rights-related topics such as land seizures or religious discrimination. MILI reports that the UEC has been generally responsive to disability rights concerns, including adding a chapter on support for voters with disabilities in the poll worker training manual and developing ballots in braille for a small number of polling stations near schools for people who are blind. Yet the results overall are lacking.

The UEC is required under international human rights obligations to ensure the right to vote for persons with disabilities. Burma ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on December 7, 2011, but continues to fall short in upholding international standards. MILI told Human Rights Watch that the vast majority of MPs are unaware of the convention or Burma’s obligations under it, including the provision on participation in political and public life. Article 29 guarantees the rights of persons with disabilities “to vote by secret ballot in elections…without intimidation,” and calls on parties to ensure that "voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use.”

Nay Lin Soe voiced other concerns as election day draws near. According to the election laws, persons of “unsound mind” are ineligible to vote, denying people with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities the right to participate in public life, while giving poll workers a worrying platform for arbitrarily refusing voting access. 

We don’t expect 100 percent [accessibility].... We just want to have proper support and accessible conditions to where we can enjoy our rights.
Nay Lin Soe

Myanmar Independent Living Initiative

While statistics on the turnout of voters with disabilities in prior elections aren’t available, MILI’s research suggests low numbers. “Many people with disabilities are not so willing to vote, to involve themselves,” he said. “In rural areas people are even less aware of their own rights, or of the voting procedures. They are afraid to ask if they don’t understand. Most don’t have proper assistive devices so they struggle to leave the house, to go to public places.” Education and outreach efforts have helped somewhat, but have also revealed pockets of skepticism about the process.

In 2010 and 2012, people with disabilities were reportedly targets for the state’s manipulation of advance voting processes, with local sub-commissioners encouraging them to vote in advance in order to stay home on election day. “We don’t trust advance voting,” a disability rights activist said. “The sub-election commissions can misuse ballots. Nobody can check, guarantee. There is no confidentiality.”

In June, the parliament approved a new National Disability Rights Law. Its by-laws, outlining the specific regulations to guide implementation and regulation, will be written by the next government. Their construction will impact millions of people across the country; on election day, they need to be able to show up and have their voices heard.

Fear and Voting in Mandalay

(Mandalay) – As November 8 election day approaches, questions about the integrity of the voter roll and balloting procedures are increasingly being asked in the Mandalay Region, one of the most populous in the country.

A woman holds a ballot slip and her national identity card before casting her vote at a polling station during by-elections in Burma on April 1, 2012. © 2012 Reuters

The main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, historically strong in the division, alleged in late October that voter rolls were massively padded in two townships of Mandalay city. Its candidates and some non-party social activists allege that migrant workers and even foreigners who should not be allowed to vote in these constituencies are being set up by government authorities with illicit voter slips to cast ballots against the NLD.

Conversely, NLD polling station agents also say they are worried that some voting places in urban areas where they insist the NLD’s turnout will be high have been set up with too many voters, raising the prospect that not everyone will be able to cast ballots in the available time. Those NLD officials maintain that biased electoral officials want to discourage or somehow prevent party supporters from voting, despite legal guarantees that people who get to the booths on time will be able to vote, no matter how long the queues.

Members of non-partisan Burmese poll-watch organizations also express seemingly contradictory misgivings. A number argue that the risk of something going wrong is greatest in Mandalay city, where not everybody knows everybody else, unlike in villages in the countryside. Others say it is precisely in the rural areas where pressures and schemes by biased local authorities and security forces could most likely have a negative impact. Some emphasize constituencies where the Burmese army has a large presence. The failure of election sub-commissions in Mandalay to make public the final data on voter rolls on time has escalated last-minute fears about potential cheating.

Others point to the difficulties of separating fact from fiction, and fraud from foul-up, in an electoral environment like that in Burma, which lacks experience in holding credible elections, compounded by the fact that the Union Election Commission (UEC), including its subordinate local sub-commissions, clearly lack independence from dominant military authorities and the parties they favor. Hardly anybody in Mandalay believes these election management bodies will honestly investigate complaints about irregularities and worse. The reality is decades of authoritarian rule have bred a context of deep political cynicism and mistrust.

Others point to the difficulties of separating fact from fiction, and fraud from foul-up, in an electoral environment like that in Burma.... The reality is decades of authoritarian rule have bred a context of deep political cynicism and mistrust.

As a member of one of the Burmese election watch organizations admitted yesterday amidst discussions of recent elections in neighboring countries, “We are not as experienced and sophisticated as our counterparts elsewhere, so our best scrutiny may not be as good as theirs.” An official international observer posted to Mandalay similarly commented, “In other countries, we have a deeper store of knowledge about how the authorities have usually undermined election integrity, and we get more solid information from domestic groups. Although there is a lot of transparency in parts of the process here and a lot of enthusiasm among Burmese voters and NGOs, there are too many things that we just don’t know for sure.” Another added, “Worst of all, if people don’t trust the results, that increases the risk of post-election violence,” a trepidation also voiced by many Burmese.

Perhaps this is not surprising in a country long run by the military where the possibility of significant changes in power relations are possible. But it doesn’t change the fact that apprehension levels are high among those closest to the election process in Mandalay.

Coloring the Campaign

 (Ngapudaw, Irrawaddy Region) ­– The signs of a presidential visit were all over the small Irrawaddy Delta town of Ngapudaw. The most prominent was the large banner welcoming President Thein Sein, complemented by massive billboards of the president and Irrawaddy Region’s chief minister. Newly distributed calendars for the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) hanging in many teashops and houses.

A bridge painted green and white for the visit of President Thein Sein in the Irrawaddy Delta on October 31, 2015. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

One welcoming flourish was funnily cryptic. Instead of the spruced up roadways with crash-guard pillions on the edge of the road painted in the standard red and white for vehicular safety, the Ngapudaw bridge and roadways crash-guards were instead newly painted green and white, the colors of the USDP. Apparently repainting was a priority, as red is the color of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). This USDP-friendly road safety color scheme could be interpreted by some as Burmese yedayay (black magic), but the real reason was an attempt by  zealous party official to make things aesthetically appealing for the president.

But the green versus red contest is not just about road signs. It has also arisen in some ruling party official speeches. During his visit in Ngapudaw, the president told the crowds, “What more change do you want? If you want more, go for communism. Nobody wants communism do they?” This evokes a long-term fault-line between the military founded USDP and the opposition NLD, who the military have accused in the past of being communist-inspired. In a speech on October 10, the USDP vice-speaker of the Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House of Parliament), Mya Nyien, told crowds that green was a pleasant color but red symbolized blood. "Green [USDP's colour] symbolises the development of the country and it means being pleasant," he said. "If one wants to know what red means, go to Martyrs' Mausoleum [which honors Burma’s Independence hero General Aung San and members of the cabinet assassinated in 1947], which was blown up by explosives… What happened to the Martyrs' Mausoleum? What colour appeared?" The crowd replied "red."

This subtle campaigning on the divide between green (army/USDP) and red (communist/NLD) produces unease amongst many in Burma, who have weathered a long history of division between the military and the people. The veiled threats of the USDP through this messaging has its ludicrous dimension, but it is also a cultural transcript of intimidation that many Burmese take seriously.


Meiktila’s Legacy of Violence

(Meiktila) – At the Zeygo Market in Meiktila, Mandalay Region, a line of women selling thanaka wear NLD flag stickers on their blouses. Down the path, the opposition party’s red, peacock-emblazoned image marks stalls crowded with motorcycle parts, stacks of longyi, and toppling pottery. But at a pharmacy around the corner, the storefront is covered instead with 969 stickers ­– a pink, yellow, and blue reminder of the extremist movement that in March 2013 sparked a violent three-day clash between Muslims and Buddhists which left as many as 44 dead, 61 wounded, and 12,000 displaced.

The arson attacks destroyed over 800 houses along with mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, covering 24 hectares west and northeast of Zeygo Market. The government ultimately called a state of emergency which quelled the violence, but two years on, large numbers of people are still displaced, and anti-Muslim sentiment has continued to spread throughout Burma’s social, political, and legal structures, including onto the electoral campaign grounds.

Nationalist movements like the 969 and Ma Ba Tha have been ramping up their election-based outreach by distributing pamphlets and giving public sermons that paint the NLD as a pro-Muslim threat to the Buddhist majority. Civil society activists in Mandalay and Rangoon describe an increase in intimidation targeting opposition candidates and supporters, in the form of both online hate speech and in-person harassment.

An NLD rally crosses the Meiktila Lake bridge on November 3, 2015. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

“The hate speech is used to make us feel fearful,” a local activist tells me. “Fear will make people violent.” Underlying tensions that exist along lines of race, religion, and class can be easily exploited during the tense partisan environment of an election.

Today, the prevailing feeling among locals around Meiktila is one of excitement; a sprawling NLD rally held in Pyitharyar quarter was a scene of euphoria, carrying on into the night. Yet some also express concerns about security issues on election day, as well the risk of violence in a post-election tinderbox.

Around town – along the Kan Pat bridge that crosses Meiktila Lake, on the outskirts of Zeygo Market, and on the roads leading to the Muslim quarters that were burned down two years ago – NLD is winning the branding war, with more prominent signage and more populous parades. But the 969 stickers on teashops and motor taxis are a reminder of the manifold forces in play, and the unofficial, yet deeply influential, campaign of fear.

Peace Seekers (An Update)

(Mandalay) – Yesterday’s hearing in the cases of Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo was postponed because the prosecutor and a prosecution witness failed to appear. According to an observer at the courthouse, both men are members of local election sub-commissions in Mandalay city and said they were too busy with sub-commission meetings to appear as scheduled. Local human rights defenders commented that both are known to be loyal to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and therefore election preparations are taking precedence over legal proceedings. One also asserted that the continuation of a case in which the chief accused is an activist of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is having a chilling effect on other party members. “It is a reminder that the authorities still have the power to prosecute anybody they like,” he said.
Lawyers in the case have predicted that the trial may go on for many more months.

For prior coverage of the case: http://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/burma-elections-2015#blog-283007

A Violent Assault on a Celebrated Rebel

(Rangoon) – The appearance yesterday by prominent opposition member of parliament Naing Ngan Lin in Thaketa township was celebrated by massive crowds of supporters. Just last week, Naing Ngan Lin and several party colleagues were assaulted in Thaketa, a township in eastern Rangoon, by machete wielding men. Naing Ngan Lin was severely cut on his head and arms. Police arrested the main suspect soon after the attack and have since arrested two others and are investigating. It is not clear whether the assault was politically motivated, but it alarmed many opposition figures throughout Burma where nearly two months of campaigning have been surprisingly violence free.

There are conflicting accounts of the events last week, with some observers stating that the alleged attackers had posted a sign outside their house which threatened to attack any NLD member who dared to campaign in the area. Others speculate that the men have ties with the ultra-nationalist Buddhist group the Ma Ba Tha. But other family members, who claim to be members of the NLD, suggested the attackers were drunk and Naing Nan Lin was not directly targeted.

Naing Ngan Lin is a long standing member of the NLD, voted into parliament for the lower house seat of Dekkhinathiri in the capital Naypidaw during the by-elections of 2012. Despite the severity of his injures, he is in stable condition and has vowed to continue his campaign for the parliamentary seat of Thaketa. This year, he was featured as a central character, identified by his nickname “Nigel,” in Delphine Schrank’s book, “The Rebel of Rangoon,” which features stories of underground political activists in Burma following the 2007 popular protests against military rule.

This is not the first attack against NLD supporters in Rangoon during this campaign. For instance, on September 19 two sons of an NLD worker were stabbed following a campaign event in Rangoon’s northern township of Mingaladon for Naw Susannah Hla Soe, one of the NLD’s Upper House candidates for Rangoon. While this incident, too, was later deemed not to be politically motivated, the candidate expressed fears of intimidation and violence while campaigning in what is a large Burmese military cantonment.

Many campaign rallies and activities in Burma are self-regulating and while the presence of security forces is minimal, so far reports of election related violence or intimidation have been relatively few. On election day, the police will deploy a recently recruited cadre of 40,000 perfunctorily trained Special Police who will be placed in charge of monitoring individual polling stations.

Ultra-nationalist rhetoric is contributing to an atmosphere of nervous apprehension and fear. It hasn’t stopped the mobilizing of mass campaign rallies, but there are serious concerns that attacks and intimidation could potentially escalate after the election results are counted.

Burma Elections: Technical Success Does Not Equal Free and Fair

(Rangoon) – On November 8, the Burmese people will choose over 1,100 representatives to the country’s national parliament and state and regional assemblies. It is a massive exercise with over 6,000 candidates from 93 registered political parties in the fray. Some 40,000 special police will be deployed to ensure safe polling – they will be unarmed, but with communication facilities to seek reinforcements in the event of any violence.

An election poster in Rangoon explaining the polling station voting process. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

International donors have backed intensive voter education programs to train voters to use the ballot sheet properly and not waste their vote. Handy and colorful pamphlets and manuals have been printed and distributed to election officials.

Controversial voter lists from earlier elections have been updated and digitized: final lists will soon be posted in each polling station. Voters have been given the opportunity to correct their details, and some 6.5 million availed themselves of the opportunity. The Union Election Commission and regional sub-commissions are now running their final checks.

Over 1,000 international election monitors and several thousand domestic observers will fan out to certify that election day meets international standards. For a country long hidden by a repressive and secretive military regime, the change is enormous. Several hundred international and domestic media outlets are expected to cover the elections.

Polling will start at 6 a.m. on November 8 and close at 4 p.m. Counting will start once the polling closes, but official results are expected to take time as the tally is collated across 40,000 polling stations.

The advance voting process is already underway. Officials and others who will be working on November 8 are casting their votes now. So are voters who are away from their constituency or living abroad.

We might have created a technically good election mechanism, but these problems will hijack those successes.

Yet all this hard work and voter exhilaration does not mean voters will be choosing the government of their choice. The electoral process is undermined by systematic and structural problems including the reservation of 25 percent of seats for the military, the lack of an independent election commission, and ruling party dominance of state media . The military created and remains allied with the ruling USDP, meaning any opposition coalition must win over two-thirds of the remaining seats to form a majority in the parliament. In contrast, the USDP needs to win just over one-third of the seats to obtain an effective majority. This is exacerbated by the lack of independence and impartiality of the Union Election Commission (UEC), both at the national and local levels. UEC Chairman U Tin Aye, a former army general and member of parliament from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has publicly stated that he hopes the USDP wins.

And then there are the discriminatory voter registration laws, and mass disenfranchisement of voters in some parts of the country Some 30 million people have received receipts with an identity number confirming their voter registration. International involvement has ensured some advanced measures to be as inclusive as possible. Among those eligible to vote in advance are the incapacitated, the disabled, those in hospital, leprosy patients, pregnant women, and prisoners awaiting trial.

But hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and other Muslims have been dropped from the voter list and effectively disenfranchised. Candidates have been excluded because of discriminatory citizenship laws that are being applied in a harsher way than in previous elections, even excluding sitting members of parliament. Rued one international expert: “We might have created a technically good election mechanism, but these problems will hijack those successes.”

The Lady's House

This morning Aung San Suu Kyi (known in Burma as "the Lady") and the National League for Democracy held a press conference at her house on Inya Lake, Rangoon, the site of her 15-year house arrest. Released in 2010, she was elected to parliament in the 2012 by-elections and is now campaigning in her first national race. Her Sunday rally in Rangoon drew tens of thousands of red-clad supporters.

Debating Discipline-Flourishing Democracy

(Rangoon) – Burma’s first nationally televised political debate took place yesterday in Rangoon ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The popular DVB Debate show brought together six speakers to discuss a range of issues, including education policy, economic reform, and the nationwide peace process.

Candidates sit at Burma’s first nationally televised political debate in Rangoon on November 4, 2015. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

Debating were senior leaders of six major political parties: Mya Nyien, an Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House) MP and Central Executive Committee member from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP); Win Myint, a senior member of the National League for Democracy (NLD); Han Shwe, a CEC member of the National Unity Party (NUP); Sai Nyunt Latt, the Secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD); Khin Maung Shwe, the president of the National Democratic Force (NDF); and Dr. Aye Maung, leader of the Arakan National Party (ANP).

The debate began with the cornerstone question: “Will the elections be free and fair?” Almost all the party leaders declared the elections could not, with Khin Maung Shwe saying, “I don’t think it’s possible for the elections to be free and fair,” to resounding audience applause.

The second part of the debate, including questions from the audience, touched on issues related to disenfranchisement of Muslims in Arakan State, directed at Aye Maung who has been accused of stirring violence against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, issues related to the military and federalism, and what deals may have been made between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the current speaker of the house, Thura Shwe Mann, who was recently purged by the USDP as its chairman. Other topics raised included education reform, mention of scores of students who are still on trial for protesting the National Education Bill, disability rights, and the penalties for rape.

Since its beginning in 2013, DVB Debate has tackled a range of issues in its weekly segments, many of them politically sensitive and hitherto impossible to imagine being discussed in public let alone televised nationally. DVB, otherwise known as the Democratic Voice of Burma, was a formerly exiled radio, internet, and TV media group that beamed its reportage into the country, but operated clandestinely inside to report, as vividly illustrated in the Oscar nominated documentary Burma VJ.

Such a debate today may not substantially change Burma’s fundamentally flawed elections, but it does provide a space for the airing of competing views over the very issues that will define the next parliament. There may be a lot of cynicism and distrust over Burma’s polls, but that makes people want to talk about them even more.

Burma: Election Fundamentally Flawed

(Rangoon) ­– Burma’s parliamentary election slated for November 8, 2015, is fundamentally flawed, depriving Burmese of their right to freely elect their government, Human Rights Watch said today. The electoral process is undermined by systematic and structural problems including the lack of an independent election commission, ruling party dominance of state media, the reservation of 25 percent of seats for the military, discriminatory voter registration laws, and mass disenfranchisement of voters in some parts of the country.

Read more: http://www.hrw.org/news/2015/11/04/burma-election-fundamentally-flawed

Peace Seekers

(Mandalay) - Later today, Zaw Zaw Latt, a Muslim interfaith activist and prominent officer in the National League for Democracy (NLD) youth wing, will appear once again at the Chan Aye Thar Zan Township courthouse in Mandalay. He was arrested at a teashop on July 14 on charges of unlawful association and illegal border crossing. Police also arrested Pwint Phyu Latt and Zaw Win Bo, two fellow activists from the Thint Myat Lo Thu Myar (Peace Seekers) group, shortly after.

The basis for the arrest has been linked to photos that Zaw Zaw Latt posted on Facebook of himself posing with a rifle during an interfaith project in Laiza, Kachin State in June 2013. He is being charged under article 17/1 of Unlawful Associations Act, a vague and draconian law which outlaws contact with “unlawful” groups. Mandalay officials and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) have declined to clarify the criminal charges.

Zaw Zaw Latt’s family and supporters point to layers of motivating factors for the government’s persecution: his religion; his visibility as a Muslim community leader and partner of like-minded progressive monks; his role in mediating local conflicts spearheaded by extremist Buddhists; the nationalist group Ma Ba Tha’s influence over the police and judiciary; and his closeness with core NLD members in Mandalay.

The opposition party has been silent on the case, and his family says that none of his NLD peers have visited the prison or court. Zaw Zaw Latt’s sister thinks their distance is due to fear of facing arrest themselves. A local activist involved in the case told Human Rights Watch, “The NLD is quiet because it would hurt their election chances. They are very cautious about the Ma Ba Tha’s influence.” This “caution” has also been suggested by prominent members as the rationale for the NLD’s rejection of all 15 Muslim candidates who submitted bids to run on the party’s roster.

Last December the NLD was similarly quiet when its then-information officer Htin Lin Oo was arrested for “acts intended to outrage religious feelings” after discouraging hate speech and bigotry in the name of Buddhism. The NLD expelled him from the party. In July he was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor.

Both Zaw Zaw Latt and Htin Lin Oo are champions of peace building and interfaith engagement, making them targets both of religious extremism and of neglect by those fearful of the Ma Ba Tha’s growing power.

Outside the Sagaing court after his sentencing, amid a crowd of about 80 Ma Ba Tha monks and members, Htin Lin Oo stated: “What I said was for love and peace between different communities with different faiths. I received two years’ imprisonment for that, but I won, because I can reveal the people behind all of this hate.”

The Politics of Hate and Exclusion

(Rangoon) – Burma is in the middle of an enthusiastic election campaign, with party signs all over Rangoon. But one party, the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), has no billboards. Its office – unlike the frenzy in the bigger parties – is almost empty.

Eighteen people had hoped to stand as candidates for the DHRP, but 15 were disqualified by the Union Election Commission (UEC) under sections 8(a) and 10(e) of the elections laws. Section 8(a) disqualifies a candidate if their parents were not citizens when the candidate was born. Section 10(e) stipulates that a candidate should have lived in the country for the past 10 years continuously.

What do all these people have in common? They are Muslims.

Most Muslim candidates in Burma have been excluded because of discriminatory citizenship laws. It is not just candidates that are disqualified. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim voters, most of whom had been able to vote in elections five years ago, have now been removed from the voter lists.

Because it is unsafe, one of the DHRP’s three approved candidates, Khin Zaw Myint, has not been to his constituency in Maungdaw since he filed the papers for his candidacy—and even then, unlike his competitors, he had to request security. There are only 23,813 eligible voters left in his constituency because a chunk of the electorate are disenfranchised Rohingya Muslims. “The problem is that the voters that would support me don’t have their name on the voter list,” he says.

He would still like to campaign. “I want to ask the voters to help me resolve the problems in Rakhine state, tell them that we can work together to overcome the situation, ensure peaceful co-existence of our communities, and bring development.” But his competitors have already threatened to protest if he shows up. He says this is unfair. “If the UEC says there will be a free and fair election, why are they not ensuring that I can campaign?”

The DHRP is not new to politics. Its founder, Kyaw Min, won a seat in the 1990 election. After the election results were annulled by the military, he joined the Committee Representing the People's Parliament led by Aung San Su Kyi. In 2005, he, his wife and their three children were arrested. They spent seven years in prison until they were released under a 2012 amnesty for political prisoners.

Khin Zaw Myint, a candidate for the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP). © 2015 Human Rights Watch

Rohingyas like Kyaw Min have long been part of Burmese politics. Their exclusion now is linked to the racist Buddhist nationalist movement led by the Ma Ba Tha, which demonizes Muslims and wants then evicted from Burma as illegal immigrants. The campaign has gained such strength that the term “Rohingya” is barely mentioned, even by Aung San Su Kyi. President Thein Sein used the term in a meeting with Human Rights Watch in February 2014, but under pressure from the Ma Ba Tha and others he and his government have claimed that the Rohingya do not exist and angrily attack those who use the term. When the DHRP first filed for registration, they wanted to be called the Rohingya Democracy and Human Rights Party. They were refused.

Kyu Kyu Win, another DHRP candidate, is preparing for her first car rally to seek votes for the regional constituency in Yangon before campaigning ends. Until now, she has restricted her efforts to door-to-door meetings, distributing flyers. She was a little nervous. “I hope no one throws any stones,” she said.

Despite the risks and the flawed election process, however, the DHRP wants to take part. They believe that political representation is the only way to protect minority rights and end the campaign of religious hatred. “They say so many terrible things about us. Monks make hate speeches against Muslims. They say we are Al Qaeda,” said party secretary Kyaw Soe Aung, a political prisoner for 11 years. “With such suppression, people can be tempted. Al Qaeda can come. That is why we want to take part in the elections. We have to show that Muslims are peaceful and want to help the country. We have only one weapon. Our prayers to Allah.”

The Mystery of Mandalay

(Mandalay) – Mandalay city, the capital of Burma’s Region of the same name, is a renowned center for learning, Buddhist and secular, with countless monasteries and an important university. It is also famous as a center for political activism, again both Buddhist and secular. During the anti-military uprising of 1988, Buddhist monks, student activists, proponents of liberal democracy, and communist militants all took to the streets and effectively seized control of the city, only to be suppressed, as elsewhere in Burma, by the armed forces. These days, it is a stronghold both of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and its vociferous critic, the Buddhist monk “Association to Protect Race and Religion” (“ma ba tha”). It also has a vibrant secular civil society sector, including a variety of non-governmental organizations, and is a base from which several senior leaders of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) are contesting seats in the region’s election constituencies.

All of this is immediately apparent to a foreign observer, not least from a browsing of book stores and stalls at which a wide political spectrum of books, magazines, and pamphlets are on sale. What is not so easily seen is what everybody seems to agree is the underlying power of the Burmese army, the tatmadaw, which maintains a large but extremely discreet presence. Commenting on this situation, one Mandalay intellectual quoted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the recent movie version of which has reached Mandalay: “Nothing is but what is not.” A Buddhist monk at a ma ba tha-dominated pagoda put it this way: “the tatmadaw is invisible everywhere.” An NGO worker used this analogy, “the army is like an enormous iceberg, the tip of which right now only occasionally appears above the surface, but everybody knows it’s there and how big it is.”

These comments come with an analysis of the upcoming election shared by several regional NLD leaders. These views refer constantly to the existing reality of constitutional provisions that reserve parliamentary seats for military-appointed representatives and lock in other guarantees of military power in and over the state regardless of the election results and to the feared possibility that if those results are too unacceptable to the tatmadaw, the ma ba tha, and the USDP, the army will come out of its seeming slumber and do something extremely violent, to overturn them, doing so either itself directly or via vigilante and other proxies under its control. As one of these voices put it, “even if the opposition wins the election, it will not win power, and if it wins too big, it may lose even bigger.”

These Mandalay voices express concern that some foreign observers may be fooled by appearances. They urge them not to be taken in by the military’s withdrawal to the barracks, its reliance on “retired” officers to staff civilian administrative and electoral bodies, its failure to engage in widespread and systematic political violence during the campaign, and its willingness to allow just about anything to be published. They warn against seeing the upcoming election is a full-fledged democratic contest, better not only than what they describe as the staged vote in Burma in 2010, but some other recent elections in Asia. They caution that anybody who sees the balloting on November 8 as a genuine contest to determine who in fact rules the country “doesn’t understand the reality of Burma.” That said, they almost all said they will vote, many explaining that they hope that the outcome, combined with continued international scrutiny and pressure for democracy and human rights, will keep open and even widen possibilities for achieving those goals.

All the President’s Men

(Rangoon) – As Burma’s November elections near, many former military officers close to current President Thein Sein are competing for seats in Parliament. Many are contesting as candidates of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Any successful candidates will be in addition to the 25 percent of the seats given to the military by the Constitution (it also reserves three key ministerial posts for the military: Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs). Two of Thein Sein’s “super-ministers,” Soe Thane and Aung Min, are contesting seats in Karenni State in Burma’s east. This means in the new parliament the military will not only be represented openly by MPs in uniform, but will also be represented by others in suits. It’s the ultimate poison pill for the idea of a return to civilian governance.   

Behind the scenes, another ominous military move to ensure long-term control over Burma’s government is happening, with little exposure. Since the so-called democratic transition began following the 2010 elections, there has been an alarming practice of transferring military personnel to the civil service and judiciary.

Burma’s weak bureaucracy has been flush with military officers dating back to the 1960s, when soldiers lacking the skills to run a technical portfolio helped perpetuate decades of chronic underdevelopment and corrupt governance. Yet this is different. Beginning with the sham 2010 elections, which supposedly heralded a slow transition to the Tatmadaw-designed “discipline flourishing democracy,” the military has been transferring officers to key positions in the police and, especially, the General Administration Department (GAD) of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The GAD is infamous for having long been used for the surveillance and monitoring of Burmese citizens in cooperation with the police and military intelligence. Today, the department also plays a key role in supporting the Union Election Commission (UEC) in conducting the upcoming polls on November 8. The UEC is itself run by a former general, Tin Aye, who has publicly states that he wants the ruling USDP to win the election.

Over the past several months, civil society protests have grown over the accelerated transfers of officers to the Ministry of Health, including an online black ribbon campaign organized by health practitioners. A blue ribbon campaign was also coordinated by Electrical Power Corporation engineers in protest of the transfer of officers to their senior management structure. In September the military appointed 20 retiring officers to senior judicial positions, which the International Commission of Jurists criticized as a further blow to judicial independence in Burma; Burmese lawyers protested with a yellow ribbon campaign. Burmese judges have long been subservient to the military. These appointments seemed aimed at blocking the creation of an independent judiciary, a hallmark of any democracy.

In June the armed forces were roundly criticized for vetoing proposed constitutional amendments that would reduce their hold over parliament. With increased personnel transfers from the military to civilian posts, it’s clear that the Burmese military is determined to consolidate its power and influence, continuing its sense of entitlement that endangers Burma’s progress toward a rights-respecting democracy.

The Red Sea of Support for Amay Suu

(Rangoon) - ‘Amay Su! Amay Su! (Mother Suu),’ they chanted. Tens of thousands had gathered to support Aung San Suu Kyi’s election campaign in Rangoon—and perhaps catch a glimpse of her. It was festive, and remarkably orderly. Children and old ladies danced to the party song, young men waved flags, and volunteers cleared the way for traffic, passed around bottles of water and party stickers.

Supporters wave NLD flags after Aung San Suu Kyi gave a speech at her campaign rally in Rangoon, Burma on November 1, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

It was a political rally like those countries that regularly manage to conduct free and fair elections. But it is remarkable because this was happening Burma. A young man told me that he was 22, and had never seen anything like this.  

The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), too, has its songs and flags.

This is remarkable. The military has ruled since 1962. After demonstrations in 1988, the military allowed elections in 1990, which the NLD won in a landslide. But the generals annulled the results and resumed their dictatorial rule.

Now the generals running for office wear civilian clothes. But in many other ways, little has changed. The sad truth is that the military knows they don’t have to try too hard. Despite calls for reform, the constitution still ensures that 25 percent of parliament will be reserved for the army. And for all the chanting support, Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president because the 2008 constitution bars her from the highest office because her children hold foreign citizenship.

There are more sinister signs of a controlled election as well. The skewed citizenship laws effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands. Religious extremist groups routinely incite hate against Muslim minorities. On October 29, Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, expressed concern about the “institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya community.” Several ethnic groups remain embattled, and fighting between the Burmese army and Shan rebels has displaced more than 6,000 civilians in recent weeks, with voting cancelled in the two townships affected.

Yet the images of supporters in green (USDP) and red (NLD) are a welcome sign in Burma. The 22-year-old young man told me he was excited that he was going to vote. “I still haven’t decided. I am going to listen carefully to choose who is best.” His vote may not matter because the leadership will still be foisted on him, but it does count because many Burmese will insist on retaining their right to choose their leaders and demand changes as a result. And once the genie of free speech escapes from its bottle, it will be difficult to put it back in.


Rubber Stamp Polls

(Mandalay) - With the elections one week away, would-be voters milling around downtown Rangoon and Mandalay have had the chance to cast an early vote: watermelon, apple, or banana.

A poster illustrating valid and invalid voting methods at a voter education booth in Burma. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

For the first time, Burma’s elections will call for voting to be done with a rubber stamp imprinted with a check-marked 3-by-3 grid and the letters “UEC,” for the Union Election Commission. Voter education booths and posters have flooded the area, with practice ballots on offer to help locals cast a vote for their favorite fruit.

Political parties and community groups have bolstered their efforts to train voters in using the stamps, yet many are concerned about making the switch from box ticking. A volunteer for a Mandalay voter awareness group called the system “trouble” after their activities revealed issues with misplacement, smudged ink, and vague stamping.

U Aung Htut, chair of the Mandalay region election sub-commission, warned voters, “You have to rubber stamp carefully on the election day. Stamp only once. If you stamp twice, or if the ink is vague, it could be an uncounted vote… Your hand needs to be calm. If the stamp slips accidentally, it could also become an uncounted vote.” He added that no additional ballot would be provided if an accident is made.

The NLD in particular has ramped up its outreach, making house calls in Chan Aye Thar San township in Mandalay to teach voters how to use the stamps.

Yet as the elections near, concerns about invalid votes and the broader, more critical issue of low voter awareness are elevated. Only about 10 percent of the country has been covered by voter awareness campaigns, according to a domestic voter education institute, and chiefly in urban areas, leaving broad swathes of the country’s rural areas unreached.

Despite long-term efforts by election educations groups, there have been significant barriers limiting the development of an informed voter bloc. In a 2014 Asia Foundation survey, only 12 percent of respondents knew that the president is elected by parliament as opposed to directly by voters. 82 percent were unable to name one branch of government. Educating voters about the technical process they’ll encounter on election day is important; yet more so is endeavoring to build a nationwide understanding of not just how to vote, but why.


Put Your Hands Up

(Sanchaung Township, Rangoon) - In 2014, Burma’s most celebrated modern visual artist Htein Lin created the display, “A Show of Hands,” featuring plaster molds of the hands of former political prisoners in memory of their struggle against military rule in Burma. On November 1, he was part of a late-night road show to campaign for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in upcoming elections.

In the excitement surrounding the elections, it is easy to forget previous abuses by the military government. Htein Lin was a prisoner from 1998 to 2004, accused of supporting the political opposition. After his release he described the harsh prison conditions where political prisoners were often left in solitary confinement. Many endured torture. Some of his associates were killed.

Ko Bo Kyi's plaster hand at the A Show of Hands exhibit by Htein Lin. © 2014 Human Rights Watch

After Burma embarked on the recent reform process, hundreds of political prisoners were released by the Thein Sein government. The government now claims that all of them have been released, but this is not true. According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPPB), scores still remain in custody. Worse, new political arrests are on the rise. Kachin peace activist Patrick Kum Jaa Lee has been charged under the Telecommunications Law of 2013 for making fun of the military in a Facebook post. Many believe that the arrest is in part a reprisal against Patrick’s wife, the prominent women’s rights and peace activist Mae Sabae Phyu, for criticizing the discriminatory race laws promoted by the Buddhist nationalist group, Ma Ba Tha. Another activist, Chaw Sandi Tun, also known as Chit Thami, faces charges for her Facebook post deploring military rule under the Electronic Transactions Law; if convicted she can face up to a five-year prison term.

At the rally Htein Lin was accompanied by Bo Bo Sanchaung, a prominent local resident and long-term friend and fellow political prisoner of the artist. People that had gathered to watch the NLD roadshow came across to greet them, posing for pictures on their mobile phone cameras.

Mobile phones and the internet have created new opportunities for access to information in Burma after years of censorship. But much remains to be done to safeguard the ability of people to use these technologies freely and without fear of reprisal. The recent arrests show that new technology is being used for surveillance and censorship to intimidate activists ahead of the elections. If the ruling party does not like the election outcome, there is concern about a future that might once again need a show of hands.

Guns of November

(Rangoon) – Attending Burma’s partial nationwide ceasefire agreement ceremony recently was Major General Lah Pweh, better known as N'Kam Way (Mr. Moustache) of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), a man tied infamously to the November 7, 2010, elections in Burma. On that day, his militia, then known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, attacked the Burmese border town of Myawaddy, driving 12,000 inhabitants to flee from shelling into the Thai town of Mae Sot. Fighting between rebels and government forces raged for months inside Burma and produced thousands of refugees, with abuses by all sides against civilians, and the Burmese army perpetrating war crimes in their use of over 700 convicts as frontline porters, including as “atrocity de-miners.”

A group of Burmese refugees, fleeing fighting between Burma's soldiers and insurgents, walk across a stream at the Thai border town of Mae Sot on November 8, 2010. © 2010 Reuters

Despite a widely touted but misunderstood ceasefire process, there is actually more armed conflict in Burma and accompanying abuses before this year’s election than five years ago. The Burmese Union Elections Commission (UEC) this month released a list of areas where voting will not take place due to instability and open conflict. More parts of the country are too unstable for polling to take place than areas cancelled in the 2010 elections and 2012’s by-elections. These include areas controlled by violent ethnic militias such as the United Wa State Army and the enclave of Mong La, but also insurgent controlled areas in Burma’s east and north.

Burma’s abuse ridden civil war has gotten worse in many areas since 2010. Fighting in Kachin State since 2011 has displaced 130,000 civilians and has led to documented crimes against humanity during hostilities, including the use of child soldiers by all parties to the conflict. Increased fighting in Northern Shan State between the Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, and Shan, Ta’ang (Palaung) and Arakan Army rebels has resulted in routine displacement and civilians being subject to forced labor and indiscriminate shooting, with over 3,000 civilians fleeing government shelling in the past two weeks. On Tuesday the UEC cancelled elections in the townships of Mong Hsu and Kyethi, and 50 villages in nearby townships because of intensifying fighting.

Fighting between the Tatmadaw and ethnic Chinese Kokang rebels has continued since March this year, with one local news organization estimating some 100 civilians were killed by the Burmese army, with over 40,000 displaced and attacks on humanitarian health workers delivering aid. Burmese military airstrikes have also killed and injured Chinese civilians across the border.

While negotiations over a national ceasefire limp along, those supporting the process rarely mention ongoing human rights violations. There is virtually no talk of accountability for past and ongoing crimes. Rights continue to be violated in ethnic conflict areas, something every observer of the electoral process has to factor into their analysis.

Campaigning in Mandalay

(Mandalay) - On October 28, the National League for Democracy (NLD) held a rally in the form of a late afternoon songfest on the outskirts of Mandalay. About ten thousand people attended the event, which was held in an area of entertainment complexes southeast of the city center.

NLD supporters climb a tree to see the rally in Mandalay on October 28. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

Starting from early in the day, youth and other NLD activists had been helping organize party enthusiasts to attend: distributing red and gold party T-shirts, headbands, flags, and face-stickers – all emblazoned with the NLD peacock symbol or images of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Other party supporters who opted not to attend also picked up NLD paraphernalia. Many of them gathered in pro-NLD tea shops around town, watching the gathering on TV while served by waiters and waitresses wearing the distinctive red and gold tops.

Some gathered at tea shops near a pagoda dominated by Buddhist monks of the Ma Ba Tha movement, whose leadership has attempted to play on racist sentiments in Burma by accusing the NLD of being sympathetic to Muslims in Burma.

The multi-religious crowd at the rally was boisterous, comprised of many full families with babies, toddlers, and other children in tow or on their parent's shoulder. The crowd often swayed and sang along in unison as the onstage celebrities belted out familiar Burmese and Western melodies. They chanted NLD slogans loudly in reaction to prompts from the performers.

There was no sign of interference from the authorities or hostility from opponents to the NLD, and any overt security force presence appeared miniscule. Observation among the crowd on the periphery of the event found only three uniformed police officers, and only one of whom had a pistol holster – empty.

This picture of seemingly unfettered freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom however is belied by chats with veteran activists in Mandalay, from the NLD and other groups. They point to legislation that gives the military-backed government the power to greatly restrict peaceful gatherings whenever it wants. They add that the NLD, confident of its popular support but worried about the possible reaction of the army and police, is limiting campaign activities to avoid providing any sort of pretext for a crackdown.

Non-NLD activists also assert the party is very worried about being associated with Muslim communities and some social movements in Mandalay, whose rights and causes it is failing to defend in what they maintain is the NLD leadership's quest for acceptability to the political, military, and economic powers-that-be, both on the political stage and behind the scenes.


A Deceptive Calm

(Rangoon)  - As the November 8 national elections approach, signs of the impending contest are growing in Burma’s former capital, Rangoon. Posters from the competing parties displaying the names, images, and biographies of candidates are appearing, along with booths distributing party campaign materials and voter-education information, all of which is crucial to explain the country’s complex voting procedures. Surprisingly for some informal observers expecting a heavy security force presence in a country dominated by the military for decades, army and police forces are almost invisible, at least to the naked eye.

Less surprisingly for observers who have experience elsewhere with first-time or almost first-time elections in long-time authoritarian situations, a casual encounter with members of the voting public suggest many are excited and eager to talk about politics. This includes a fascinated desire to discuss with foreigners comparisons of the situation in their country with that in others that they believe have faced comparable turning points. Many are unafraid to declare their political loyalties, including support for the best-known opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), even in public places where anybody might overhear them.

However, one such encounter in one of the now countless internet shops in the capital pointed to underlying fears. On the one hand, the owner and his children loudly proclaimed to a shop full of milling customers that the entire family would vote for the NLD and of their devotion to its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The mother of the family explained that their hope was that this would make Burma a “modern country.” But things turned darker when this prompted them to ask me about experiences in other countries, including Egypt, Thailand, and Cambodia, where military coups and security force violence have overturned election results or squelched post-election demonstrations and protests against election fraud and irregularities, leading in all three instances to serious human rights violations.

They were particularly interested by events in Cambodia, a fellow Southeast Asian country where a seemingly perennial authoritarianism was unsuccessfully challenged in the national elections of 2013 by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). As it happened, among the files on the computer I had brought into the shop were photographs and videos of that election campaign and its violent aftermath. The family and customers gathered around, again displaying opposition sentiments when viewing images of huge CNRP campaign marches and CNRP leader Sam Rainsy waving to the crowds.

This turned to horror when they were shown images of post-election security force violence, including incidents in which troops opened fire on protesters, with deadly results. “Just like 1988,” shouted one viewer, referring to the violence faced that year during the army’s crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets of Rangoon. “This could happen again here,” said another.