Voting, but Not as We Know It

By South, Ashley | The World Today, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Voting, but Not as We Know It


South, Ashley, The World Today


On November 7 Burma goes to the polls, for the first time in twenty years. The elections will be neither free nor fair, and are likely to result in military-dominated national and provincial administrations. However, a large number of independent parties will participate, hoping that this imperfect processwill at least bring some change, slowly opening up accountability and political debate ina country dominated by the military for half a century. Will the polls have the minimal credibility for them to be endorsed by western countries? China, India and other regional powers are likely to have fewer scruples.

THE 1990 ELECTIONS IN BURMA - OR Myanmar, AS the country is now officially called - were won by the National League for Democracy (NLD), with two thirds of the vote, under its charismatic General Secretary, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. However, the military regime, which has run the country since 1962, refused to hand over power, and has ruled by decree ever since.

The past two decades have seen economic stagnation, wide spread corruption and misgovernance, systematic human rights abuses by the military against ethnic nationalist insurgents in the borderlands and the often brutal suppression of urban dissent.

ISOLATION & SANCTIONS

Three years ago last September, the military regime cracked-down against civilian protesters, led by revered Buddhist monks, demonstrating against the social and economic malaise. The "saffron revolution" illustrated the deep-seated and widespread unpopularity of the regime; its suppression showed that the generalswere stillwilling to use lethal force to maintain their rule, and could get away with it.

Just as after the 1988 'democracy uprising', and the military's failure to recognise the 1990 election results, the suppression of the saffron revolution generated international outrage, at least among those western - primarily European and North American - states which enjoy the luxury of not sharing Burma's strategically important neighbourhood.

Since 1988, in an effort to promote democratisation and respect for human rights, western nations have sponsored sanctions against, and international isolation of, the military government. Despite its symbolic power however, this policy has pushed Burma further into the Chinese sphere of influence, and consolidated the position of hardliners.

Meanwhile, Burma's other giant neighbour, India, has chosen to engage and compete with China to gain access to Burma's extensive natural resources: gas and hydropower, as well as timber. The government has been able to play off these two emerging superpowers, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, (ASEAN) regional grouping, making the sanctions largely ineffective.

HAND OF FRIENDSHIP

Given the hand of friendship extended to other 'rogue states' by United States President Barack Obama's administration, it was not surprising that last year Washington sought to engage Burma. However, vociferous pro-sanctions lobbies in western countries - particularly the US and Britain - are highly sceptical of this approach. Although they lack much traction back home, Burmese politicians in exile and their support networks have been able to 'capture' western policy. They are likely to fight hard to frame the forthcoming elections as entirely illegitimate, thereby resisting any change in the regime's international pariah status.

In this context, US State Department and British Foreign Office officials are asking whether the elections will have a minimal degree of credibility, producing a Burmese government with which they can do business, despite the bluster of opposition groups.

Whatever government emerges, it will continue to be dominated by the military. It should be noted that the 2008 constitution - passed by an improbably large majority, in a referendum conducted shortly after the devastation of Cyclone Nargis - provides for a presidential system.

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