(New York) - The national elections announced by Burma's military government for November 7 are designed to further entrench military rule with a civilian facade, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and concerned governments should seize Burma's announcement of the first elections in more than 20 years to exert greater scrutiny over a deeply flawed process and press for the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners.
"Announcing an election date follows the military's script, but doesn't make the fatally flawed process any more legitimate," said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Today's proclaimed election date comes a week after the electoral commission announced the numbers of constituencies open to political parties. Both houses of parliament will reserve a quarter of all seats for serving military officers (110 out of 440 in the national level parliament and 56 out of 224 in the upper house). In April, the prime minister, Gen. Thein Sein, and more than 20 senior generals with ministerial portfolios resigned from the armed forces and registered with the new pro-government Union Solidarity and Development Party to contest the elections.
"No one should be fooled. The generals may be exchanging their khakis for civilian clothes, but these polls are still a carefully arranged plan to keep power in the hands of the military junta," said Pearson.
With the election date announced, Human Rights Watch is concerned that intimidation of the population and some political parties will intensify. The May 2008 constitutional referendum was marked by voting irregularities, intimidation, and repression. Various laws and regulations governing the elections place sharp restrictions on basic freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. Laws limit public gatherings to five people and make public criticism of the election process punishable under law. There are sharp restrictions on media coverage of the elections, and the Press Scrutiny Board acts as a censor to limit what Burmese journalists can publish. Foreign journalists are also regularly denied access to Burma.
The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has been ignoring consistent calls from the UN, ASEAN, the European Union, and concerned governments to release all political prisoners, make the electoral process more credible and inclusive, and to begin a real process of national reconciliation with all actors, including the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and Burma's many ethnic groups.
Human Rights Watch said that election laws released in March have placed unfair restrictions on parties such as banning political prisoners from being members. The new Union Solidarity and Development Party mirrors the mass-based social welfare organization Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), formed by the military in 1993 and now comprising more than 24 million nominal members.
"Concerned governments should not fall into the trap of thinking that a fundamentally flawed process is better than nothing and that the elections may promise some future openings," said Pearson. "So far, these elections are merely a blueprint for a slightly more refined system of military rule."