At a recent press conference, the spokesperson for UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon asserted that “the United Nations has strongly encouraged the Myanmar [Burmese] authorities to invite regional and international monitors because we believe that that will inspire confidence in the elections”.
It is hard to imagine anything inspiring confidence in the elections. To speak of election monitors in Burma misses the point entirely. An election is more than just what happens on the day: to be effective, election observation must look at the entire electoral process over a long period of time, rather than at election-day proceedings only. For this to occur, there needs to be genuine support from the state, as occurred in Cambodia in 1993, where over 50,000 Cambodians were trained as election officials by the UN Transitional. Elections are a process and it is the process itself that is fundamental to democracy.
The legitimacy of the election in Burma will not rest on the whether international observers are allowed to monitor the election – the legitimacy of the election rests on the regime’s response to dissent.
In Burma, some 2,200 people remain in prison, where they live in dire conditions and endure appalling abuses at the hands of the military junta for their simple desire for a more peaceful and democratic Burma. If it is democracy that this election is meant to serve, then why does the junta keep locking up the very people who seek this aim?
A normal part of a democratic electoral process is debate; criticism of the incumbent government. Where the ruling party has not lived up to expectations, the election campaign is an opportunity for those contesting the election to show voters where the incumbent fell short and why they, as candidates, are a better option. In countries like the US, this is taken to the extreme, with candidates and parties publicly ridiculing each other; nothing is sacred in their efforts to expose the competition.
But in Burma, this is not the case. The Burmese junta has made clear its thoughts on “the process of fostering democracy,” when they said that “improper and inappropriate campaigns” would not be allowed. It is not hard to imagine what is meant by “improper and inappropriate,” and it is evident what the consequences for those found engaging in such campaigning would be. History shows us that desperate despots stop at nothing to perpetuate their rule. The past twenty years in Burma have shown us this much, too.
Most recently, the regime, threatened by the power of the people, enforced legislation to ensure the opposition is divided and weakened, which forced the National League for Democracy (NLD) party to disband. But this only indicates where the weakness of this regime lies. A military regime will never capture the hearts and minds of its people, not in the way that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can, not in the way Min Ko Naing inspires generations of activists the world over. That is the power of democracy; it lies in the power of the people.
As if harassment, intimidation and imprisonment of the opposition were not enough, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has gone one step further to seal the fate of the election outcome: they have violated their own election laws. Burmese prime minister Thein Sein and his cronies have formed their own political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In doing so, they violate Chapter 2, Article 4(d) of the Political Parties Registration Law, which prohibits civil servants from forming a political party.
With the 2008 constitution already ensuring the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament, the fact that the military-led USDP is now going to contest the election should dispel any doubts as to the SPDC’s true intention for any power sharing arrangement.
Regardless of whether international observers monitor the election, the elections will not be credible if they are held without the release of all political prisoners and without the criminal records of current political prisoners being wiped, therefore guaranteeing their right to participation, once released. For the secretary general of the UN to suggest otherwise is naïve, if not neglectful. What can we learn from other dictators and their sham electoral processes?
During the 2008 election in Zimbabwe, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the contest because of violence against his supporters. In the run up to the election, Mugabe set paramilitary thugs on his opponents, intimidating many potential voters. At one point, Mugabe’s men even attempted to throw Tsvangirai out of an eight-story building. The state-run media spewed out propaganda; intense and abusive vitriol against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party and Tsvangirai. The independent press was attacked, and its editors and writers frequently brought in for police “questioning.” Following the 2008 election of Mugabe, some African leaders refused to recognize Mugabe as president of Zimbabwe. Given a similar pattern of willful perversion of the electoral process in Burma, will the Southeast Asian leaders do the same?
What can we expect from Burma’s neighbours? China’s ambassador recently told reporters: “A general election being held in any country is a matter of a sovereign state, so that should be respected.” But as the British ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, aptly noted, “The instability that could be caused by a flawed electoral process is a threat to international peace and security.”
The UN Secretary General does not provide much inspiration for those looking for a bold approach to Burma. “It’s frustrating and … disappointing that we have not seen much progress” toward democracy, said Ban Ki-moon. “Much progress” – in April alone, at least 12 political activists were arrested, bringing the number of political activists in prison to 2199. Leaping from 1185 in 2006, now, as the election looms ever closer, the figure is set to increase.
Elections are important for the democratization of Burma, but, with almost 2,200 political prisoners excluded, the election will not be democratic, or free, or fair. Democracy and human rights are interdependent. You cannot have one without the other. Political prisoners embody the denial of the most basic freedoms essential to humankind: freedom of thought, association and assembly. The treatment of these prisoners also violates fundamental rights: the right to be free from torture, the right to health and the right to an adequate standard of living. The judicial system, in Burma, far from affording individuals basic standards of justice, is employed by the regime as an instrument of repression to silence dissent. And, at every level, impunity reigns.
In 2009 Ban Ki-moon stated: “It is high time to turn the promise of the responsibility to protect into practice”. It is high time he gave meaning to these words; it is high time he stood up for the people of Burma. Without the support of the UN and the countries which make up its mandate, then all you are left with is bravery of the Burmese people to fight alone; with their words and with their hearts. It is time Ban Ki-moon stood on the side of the Burmese people. He has the freedom to speak out and those who have the freedom to speak out should do so for those who cannot. The risk for him is far less than the risk my courageous brothers and sisters take, for they will continue to risk torture and even death before renouncing their non-violent struggle.
Bo Kyi is joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP)