In recent comments to the media, US senator Jim Webb urged the people of Burma to vote in order to “build the future a step at a time”. Webb is not alone: a number of commentators have adopted the position that an election in Burma is better than nothing.
Many have asserted that the opposition movement would do better to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and that protest from the sidelines rarely works. Indeed the newly formed National Democratic Front party also believes that change may come through the parliamentary system.
The ‘better than nothing’ approach of Webb and others, whether pragmatic, hopeful or naïve, is not good enough. Proponents of this approach are in essence accepting the fate of elections; they are conceding to the fact that they will not be free and fair and that this is somehow acceptable. Acceptance of these elections and the election result will bestow upon the military regime the legitimacy it is seeking. The elections are not about democratization: rather than serving the people, these elections will serve the interests of the military elite.
Elections are important for Burma and an essential part of its democratization process. After 20 years of military repression, the people of Burma deserve the chance to vote. But they also deserve for their vote to count, and the military regime has spent the past twenty years working to ensure that it won’t. The National League for Democracy’s landslide victory in 1990 won’t be repeated. This time round the military has secured its success; in fact, they have constitutionalised it.
With the 2008 constitution already ensuring the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament, the military-led Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) set to secure the pivotal presidential post and with the regime’s propaganda machine in full swing, any doubts as to the ruling State Peace and Development Council’s (SPDC) true intention for any power-sharing arrangement should be dispelled.
But the constitution goes further to ensure the entrenchment of military rule. It grants total immunity for any past human rights violations carried out by agents of current or former ruling juntas. The constitution also allows for the return to absolute military rule and the suspension of all fundamental rights in their entirety: in other words, the constitution legalises military coups. The impact of this on any future attempts at democratisation could be devastating.
Some people in the international community see these elections as a hopeful step forward. For the people of Burma, the elections will not bring about change, nor will they improve the lives of the people. If anything, they have the potential to worsen the already fraught human rights situation. If anyone had doubts about the direction of reform in the country, then they need only look at the military regime’s recently-exposed nuclear plans. Burma’s nuclear programme is further evidence of the junta’s total disregard for the basic rights of its people. It has no intention of bringing them out of poverty and all the intention of increased militarisation. While the regime siphons off money from the basic needs of its people and into the pockets of its military cronies, the people of Burma are getting poorer.
For elections to be free and fair they must be competitive. Opposition parties and candidates must enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly, and association necessary to openly voice their criticisms of the government and bring alternative policies to the voters. Simply granting the opposition access to the ballot is not enough. At present, basic conditions allowing for the exercise of these rights do not exist in Burma. Anything written on the election must go past the junta’s censorship board.
The Burmese junta has made clear its thoughts on “the process of fostering democracy,” when it 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. There are currently more than 2150 people languishing in prisons for peacefully exercising their political rights.
A normal part of a democratic electoral process is debate – criticism of the incumbent government. But in Burma the law requires that political parties do not oppose the ruling SPDC or criticise the armed forces. How can an opposition party, be seriously expected to contest the election that way?
Genuine opposition parties are vital to the functioning of free and fair elections. In Burma the political space is so restricted as to render any party or candidate contesting the election, other than the military-backed USDP, redundant. Not only are opposition party members facing increasing threats, attacks, and harassment but the arbitrary nature of the rules governing the election ensure all parties are at the whim of the military appointed Election Commission. The Commission can pick and choose which political parties will contest the election, all the while retaining the power to dissolve any party, at any time, whose members fail to meet the requirements of the military junta’s election laws, including those who do not swear allegiance to the undemocratic 2008 constitution.
In this climate it is impossible for parties to function, with the exception of the USDP who seem to operate above the law. The most recent election law to be breached by the USDP is the one banning foreigners standing as candidates. The USDP has appointed a Chinese businessman with close ties to the ruling junta as a candidate in Kachin state.
With the election date still unannounced, and an array of arbitrary restrictions in place, many parties are too frightened to start campaigning. This hasn’t stopped USDP from opening their offices or canvassing for votes. Though, when campaigning includes “incentives” such as lending money, free tuition classes, and free medical treatment for those who agree to vote for USDP candidates, a more apt description is buying votes.
‘Disciplined democracy’ in Burma should be exposed for what it is: continued military rule. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect the same democratic standards we see in countries with years of practice, and no one is doubting that true democracy takes time. But there are certain conditions that must be met. Unless those conditions are met the international community should not recognise the election result. Without a genuine democratic transition, any election, regardless of how it is sold abroad, will be meaningless, and it will be ‘business as usual’ in Burma. Senator Webb needs to face up to this unpleasant reality. ‘Better than nothing’ must be that – it must be better. If this election can not offer the people of Burma a better future then it must be exposed for what it is: a cruel charade.
Bo Kyi is joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP)