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There is much to be skeptical of in Burma’s plan for nationwide elections in October. But today one small, yet important, first step toward making Burma a genuine rights-respecting democracy took place. As part of a national process to update voter lists, 10 townships in the commercial capital, Rangoon, displayed the lists so that 250,000 eligible voters can verify their names and basic details, or register for the first time.

The official Union Electoral Commission is cooperating extensively with Burmese nongovernmental groups that have led the public information campaign. In a departure from longstanding government practice, the groups were genuinely consulted and their suggestions mostly factored into a process that will soon expand across Burma and be finalized by August for an estimated 30 million voters.

Burma’s elections are fundamentally undemocratic, as the country’s 2008 constitution guarantees 25 percent of seats for serving military officers, and contains provisions that effectively bar the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president. Parliament recently voted to rescind temporary ID cards, which will strip voting rights from nearly one million Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities and bar them from joining political parties. And due to increased fighting, voting will probably not be held in some ethnic border areas.

The election commission is filled with former military officers, who tend to side with the government. Any analysis of the democratic bona fides of these elections can’t be limited to observing voting conditions on election day, but will need to look at the structural limitations of the entire election process.

Talk of a constitutional referendum in May, while unlikely to take place, demonstrates the lack of urgently needed progress on amending the constitution since the last election in 2010. The country’s military commander, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, last week warned against anyone strong-arming voters. But he defended the military as the “constitution’s guardian,” suggesting no constitutional reforms anytime soon.

The military calls Burma’s political system “discipline-flourishing democracy,” a sinister reminder of the military’s continuing control. But the right to vote and citizen empowerment is a necessary part of a genuine democratic system. Today’s display of voting lists is a positive development in an otherwise bleak environment in advance of the October polls.


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