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The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) was established in 1997 as Asia’s first regional network of civil society organizations. Its director, Somsri Hananuntasuk, has just returned from Afghanistan where the group was allowed to freely monitor the polls, interview candidates and hold press conferences. It’s a world away from Burma, she tells DVB, where foreign observers are banned and laws and regulations surrounding the day of voting left ominously vague.
In a reclusive country like Burma, what sort of purpose can election monitors have, especially when you cannot go into the country?
Burma is an undemocratic country and we can compare it to Vietnam or Laos or China: those countries are closed and they have elections but they’re not really direct, open or democratic elections, and Burma seems to be the same. But there is a difference in terms of how much they’re controlled by the military and not really open to people’s participation. [The Burmese junta] has a constitution – it’s a good example I think because it raises the issue of the referendum and election, because what they did in 2008 [referendum] is a problem if they use the same way [for the 2010 elections].
What sort of similarities do you see between voting procedures in 2008 and conditions now?
The 2008 election referendum was easy because you just voted for yes or no. The difficulty then was cyclone Nargis, but the complication now is about the system and the process. There will three elections [for three parliaments]: the upper house and lower house, and the regional level. They have three ballot papers and they have three ballot boxes. But the complication is that if you are in Rangoon, for example, but you are Kachin and the population [of Kachin] in Rangoon is more than 0.1 percent, then you can get another ballot paper and that station will have an extra box for that minority. That means that you might vote for four candidates – four elections – because you are a minority. We don’t know whether people understand this or not, and the way that they set up the polling station is that they will go one by one. They will not give you four ballot papers at the same time. Of course each ballot box will be a different colour and the booth will have a curtain like they did in 2008.
The curtain will be closed, and they’ll have a poll officer and, if I’m not mistaken, they will allow the candidates to observe inside the polling station. This is not good, because [the party candidates] could threaten other people if the candidate is powerful influential in that constituency. There could be party agents prepared by the junta in every ballot station.
What about election observers?
They said they will allow the people to observe but how? How much can they observe and how do they count? We need tabulation paper, we need you to show ballot papers one by one. And we also want to know that the poll officer is neutral enough. It doesn’t mean that you voice number one and they mark number three or something like that.
We also don’t know what is inside the booth – we cannot see. They completely close the curtain. And sometimes someone, some poll officer, sands there and talks to the voter, and sometimes they allow security and security tries to influence the guy watching the ballot box – stands with a weapon inside the polling station.
We also want to know about the advance votes for the poll officer and police and military. And threats for government official like in 2008 that “if you don’t vote for ‘yes’ for the referendum, ‘yes’ for the constitution, you will lose your job”. And after the 2008 constitution people in the market also told us that “if you don’t vote for yes, for the civilisation of Burma, for the betterment of yourselves, we would not allow you to sell your vegetables in this area”. So they have to vote. So this kind of threatening and harassment has happened already, especially in remote areas or minority states.
Do you that these elections in Burma will be a sham?
We’ve studied the constitution and election law, and the electoral process, and we already see that it’s not free and fair. You can see from the media and the environment that there is no freedom of movement or freedom of expression. It’s very sad to see that. The media [in Burma] is totally controlled by the junta and is very much biased. Even the Election Commission is nominated by the junta.
We are also concerned about voter education because the election is not simple and we don’t know that Burma can have voter education like other countries. For this you need to do some outreach work about the electoral process – invalid ballot papers, for example. We have less than 30 days now, and ballot papers should already be there.
Has pressure on Burma from other Southeast Asia countries been adequate?
Sometimes I have some hope in the long term from the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries, but I know they are also concerned about their benefit and their relationship [with Burma]. Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore still rely on the national resources of Burma. Thailand has big business with them, and while the Democrats try to speak out on things, [the generals] don’t really listen, or they don’t care. In the Democrat Party, the prime minister and MPs and other progressive wings try to help and they really pity the civil society in Burma and the minorities. But it’s very difficult for them to speak openly and loudly – they’re not very vocal.
How does Burma fit into the history of elections in the wider Asian region? You’ve just been in Afghanistan – do you see this level of political corruption anywhere else?
In fact we talked about Burma in Kabul a lot, because we had two Burmese observers with us. We discussed a lot about the freedom in Afghanistan – Afghanistan has more violence than Burma, of course, but freedom of movement is different. [Afghanistan] has more freedom; the media have freedom. We could organise press conferences, get interviews, write articles, talk and comment. Afghanistan doesn’t compare to [Burma] because it has a better system, and that is set up by the UN so of course the standards are there. They also have quotas for women and minorities, and the election campaigning is quite open. They can have voter education and they invited international observers.
In my opinion, in our generation, Burma is new. This election is the first time that many will vote – only people who are 38 years or older will have voted in elections before. It’s very new for everybody, even us, because we have to study many things. We try to help as much as we can. We try to organise training, workshop for them from Thailand. And I think they will learn bit by bit. And they are now beginning to talk about how to observe the elections from inside the country.
I think it is not too bad if this election is not really open for them to participate, because these people will be ready for the next election, and I hope that the next election will be better held in the next four years. It should be sooner than that – no need to wait for another four years. Maybe next year or another year. So let’s see what will happen after the election, because we know what is going to happen for this election.
Q: What do you say to people who say you can’t jump straight to full democracy, and that it’s not necessarily part of the Asian culture?
Thailand did not jump, but we did not have this 25 percent of [parliamentary] seats for military, nor did we draft this kind of constitution. And nobody said we were jumping at that time. It depends on the interpretation of the jump to democracy – we did not expect it to be perfect. Actually you should look at the Philippines also, it’s a good example. After people power they have good elections, they have good commissioners, they have the system.