Burma unveils campaigning laws

Political parties running for elections in Burma this year will have to give a week’s notice before holding public speeches and are barred from chanting slogans and waving flags.

The rules, announced today in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper, appear to be an attempt at dampening the impact of party campaigns and stifling debate. One directive bans parties from giving talks or publishing material “that can spark disputes on racial affairs or religious affairs or individuals or others, and that can harm dignity and morality”.

Another law orders that parties must not campaign in public places, such as schools, workplaces, markets and government offices, while marching and chanting of slogans is banned. Thu Wei, from the Democratic Party, said that the laws “restrict [parties] from publicising themselves”.

Regional observers also believe that the campaigning laws are an attempt to weaken the opposition and ensure a smooth passage to office for government proxy parties.

“This is like Singapore; they don’t allow parties to go just anywhere and interview and talk to people, and do door-to-door visits,” said Somsri Hannanuntasuk, director of the Asia Network for Free Elections (ANFREL). “Both countries don’t want the opposition or other parties to be known by the public.”

Concerns about the legitimacy of Burma’s first elections in 20 years arose following the government’s unveiling of laws in March that banned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running and forced the dissolution of her party. Questions have also been raised about the impartiality of the Election Commission (EC), which will act as the supreme authority during the polls.

“We don’t know if [the EC] is really independent and can exercise its power,” Somsri said. “If you look at other countries’ ECs, they have bargaining power with the government, but this commission is under the ruling junta and is appointed by the military so I don’t think they will give equal treatment for every party.”

The EC head, Thein Soe, said last month that international monitors would not be allowed in the country to observe the elections. Similar controversies also surrounded the 2008 constitution referendum, which was allegedly supported by more than 90 percent of the population, despite complaints of widespread vote rigging and coercion of voters.

Candidates have also complained that preferential treatment is being given to the party headed by Burma’s prime minister, Thein Sein, while groups opposed to the current government are being hindered in their campaigning.

Last week the National Democratic Force (NLD), an offshoot of Suu Kyi’s party, was approved to run in the elections but is yet to be given permission to campaign.

“It will be interesting to see what happens with the NDF; how much the government restricts their freedom [to campaign], whether they allow them to have media access and campaign on television and radio,” said Somsri.

“The EC should organise a debate and allow all 33 parties to talk equally about their policy, but I don’t think this will happen. We’ll see, it might be too early to say because the elections might not even be this year.”

Additional reporting by Ahunt Phone Myat

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