Burma’s prime minister has called on all Burmese citizens to ensure today’s elections are successful as a growing chorus of world leaders and activists decry the polls as a sham.
Premier Thein Sein, one of around 30 former generals who have shed uniforms to stand in the elections, said the “prestige and integrity of all the citizens and the state” depended on the polls, according to state mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar.
The prime minister, who is standing as a candidate for the junta’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, said the elections were the fifth step in Burma’s seven-step Roadmap to Democracy which would result in a “discipline-flourishing democratic new nation”.
But much of the international community is deeply sceptical. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today slammed the polls, calling them “deeply flawed” and claiming they “expose the abuses of the military junta”. “It’s heartbreaking because the people of Burma deserve so much better,” said Clinton, who was speaking in Melbourne during a two-day meeting with Australian leaders.
Voting at around 40,000 polling stations began shortly after 6am today and will continue until 4pm. Few believe the results will bring anything but a sweeping victory for the USDP, which is fielding candidates in 1,112 of the 1,158 seats available in two parliamentary houses and 14 regional legislatures.
The USDP’s largest rival, the National Unity Party, is another military-backed party representing supporters of Burma’s late military strongman Ne Win. It is fielding 995 candidates. High fees have meant democratic and ethnic opposition parties have been unable to stand in more than a small number of seats.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party is boycotting the elections, claiming the rules are unfair. The NLD won a landslide in Burma’s last elections in 1990 but was prevented by the junta from forming a government.
Members of the NLD who disagreed with the boycott are standing as candidates for the National Democratic Force party, but are fielding just 164 candidates due to lack of funds. A quarter of seats are already reserved for the military.
Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest in Rangoon but is set for release in six days time, is just one of some 2,200 political prisoners in Burma. The junta has ignored widespread calls by the international community, including from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to release them in time for the polls.
On Friday, Canadian foreign minister Lawrence Cannon said the Ottawa government was “seriously concerned” over conditions surrounding the election. “We again call on the regime to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and to commit to a genuine dialogue with members of the democratic opposition and the various ethnic minority groups within Burma,” he said.
“The people of Burma deserve to have their voices heard without fear of intimidation or violence. While respecting each political party’s decisions on whether or not to participate in the elections, Canada welcomes the courage of those Burmese people who have attempted, despite severe restrictions, to stand as candidates for independent political parties,” he said.
But most Burmese democracy activists are fiercely opposed to any engagement with the polls, which they see as an attempt to legitimise a barbaric military regime. Typical in sentiment is Win Tin, who has spent 19 years in prison for his pro-democracy activities.
Interviewed in today’s Observer, Win Tin urged people not to vote – even if it meant imprisonment. “It is the only thing left to us: there is no hope to come from voting for this party or that party. This government aims to win, and it is so detested that it is impossible for us to do anything but boycott,” he told the paper.
But others see the elections as a flawed but necessary step on the road to real democracy. “No-one is under any illusions about what these election laws entail,” political analyst Aung Naing Oo told DVB, “but I haven’t heard any rational explanation about what will happen if the ‘no vote’ campaign wins.”
By refusing to participate in the political process, the opposition risked confining itself to irrelevance, he said. “A lot of people who would vote for opposition groups are being asked to stay away from the polling stations, so the idea of a boycott plays right into the hands of the Burmese military,” he said.
Participation had proved effective in many other parts of the world, he said. “One example is Zimbabwe,” he said. “It’s very similar to Burma. Morgan Tsvangirai opted out and then realised he had no other choice and went back into the game.”
“Without intense international and domestic pressure, no boycott in history has succeeded,” he added.