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Burmese democracy activists denounce 2010 polls

Originally appeared in Mizzima News

March 19, 2010

By Larry Jagan

A leading Burmese opposition group has denounced the junta’s forthcoming election as illegitimate and the final act in the military’s attempt to hold onto and legitimize power for ever. “The election is neither an opportunity nor the first step towards democracy,” Khin Ohmar, a leading member of the Forum for Democracy in Burma told journalists at a press conference in Bangkok on Friday.

“There will be no breakthrough after the elections,” she said. “And there is a very real danger that the situation for ordinary Burmese will get far worse as the junta will feel it has increased legitimacy from the vote and be even more repressive and ruthless.”

The campaign group, coordinated by the Burma Partnership, brings together many of the Burmese pro-democracy movement living abroad and members of the country’s ethnic groups. Now that the electoral laws have been published, it is becoming clear that the planned elections will be a farce, according to the group.

“Now is the time to denounce the election and refuse to recognise the result,” Ms Ohmar insisted. “And we urge the international community to do so too.” At this critical juncture, the Burmese people need the support of the outside world more than ever, she suggested.

The group insists that the election laws that have been published in the last two weeks are the final seal of the regime’s deceit. “By banning political prisoners from joining political parties and contesting the elections, Burma’s most important democratic leaders are being excluded – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Khun Htun Oo and members of the 88 Generation – from the elections,” Thein Oo, a lawyer and an MP elect in the 1990 polls told Mizzima.

The recently published political parties’ law prevents prisoners from being members of political parties. Although there are still 10 official political parties from the 1990 elections, including the National League for Democracy (NLD), they have 60 days from 8 March to re-register. But to do so they would have to expel their leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, and some 420 NLD members who are in jail. The NLD central executive will meet to discuss their re-registration and participating in the elections at the end of the month.

There is some doubt whether this regulation also applies to political prisoners who have already been released – though the constitution bars long-term prisoners from contesting the elections. Thein Oo is adamant that this is a blanket ban, while expert legal opinion inside Burma is less certain. Aung San Suu Kyi has asked the party’s legal experts to thoroughly review the election laws and present their findings to the NLD meeting later this month.

“The problem is that the laws are vague – deliberately so,” said Zin Linn, a leading spokesman for the pro-democracy movement based in Thailand. “This gives the Election Commission enormous authority to interpret the laws and adjudicate,” he said. “From past experience we have learned not to trust those hand-picked by the junta.”

There is little known about the 17 members of the commission who were recently appointed, except the president Thein Soe. He was a Vice Chief Justice of Burma’s Supreme Court and former Military Judge Advocate General – very much a military man, though no longer actually in uniform. Among the other members are also former military officers, judges, professors and a retired ambassador. Academics, civil servants and the judiciary have not all been severely cowed under the repressive military regime so are unlikely to try to be independent and much more likely to follow the instructions of the junta leaders.

Since 1962, and particularly since 1988, no court judgement in Burma has gone against the military regime. So there is no reason to assume their behaviour will change now. “Don’t forget the old Election Commission tried to dismiss Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the NLD’s Secretary General,” Zin Linn added. Then the party ignored the instruction and she carried on in that role – even during her long periods of house arrest.

Thein Oo insists the electoral laws are extremely restrictive and will effectively prevent the elections from being free and fair. Analysts and diplomats in Rangoon though are less strident.

“Compared to many other international examples, these laws would not be judged as particularly unfair,” a western diplomat based n Rangoon told Mizzima on condition of anonymity. “But it’s the context that matters — a heavily controlled constitution-drafting process, a constitution in favour of the military, a sham referendum result, and 20 years of determined deterence to would-be political actors,” she said.

And on the face of it some of the provisions of the electoral laws are relatively acceptable. The registration fees for parties and candidates are not nearly as prohibitive as originally feared.  The fee for each party – 300,000 kyat or $ 300 — is comparatively cheap, and more crucially the fee for candidates to register to run in the elections is 500,000 (or $ 500) far below what was being predicted. Many politicians preparing for the elections believed it would be over $ 2,000 and possibly as high as $ 5,000.

Perhaps one of the most important conditions, which have gone relatively unnoticed, is that the counting will take place at the polling stations, and the result announced there. The counting will also take place in front of scrutinizers – representatives of all the candidates will be allowed to watch the count – as in the 1989 election law.

This is a very sound provision, for during the sham referendum in 2008 ballot-boxes were taken to the provincial centres and counted, with the results announced nationally. Local counting, with the observers monitoring, could significantly reduce the possibility of vote stuffing and manipulation, according to international election monitoring groups.

But none of this seems to move the leaders of the campaign to denounce the election before it takes place. “It will have to be something significant for us to change our minds,” Ms Ohmar told Mizzima. “If in May they release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi then we would have to reconsider – but that’s not likely,” she added.

The campaign insists there are our conditions which the junta needs to accept before considering the election would be free and fair. These are the unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi; stop all attacks and intimidation against ethnic communities and democracy activists; and start a genuine and inclusive political dialogue, including a review of the 2008 constitution.

“Unless these are conditions are met, especially accepting the need for a federal structure to satisfy the ethnic groups, there will be no real democracy, peace and stability in Burma,” said Naw Zipporah Sein, General Secretary of the Karen National Union.

Fighting is continuing in the border regions. Forced labour, portering and the forced relocation of villagers is rampant in the Karen areas, she told Mizzima. Under those conditions it will be impossible to hold elections let alone a free and fair poll.

“These elections cannot be free or fair, or credible,” Ms Ohmar said.

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