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Myanmar deprives ‘millions’ of vote in ethnic areas

Originally appeared in AFP

September 17, 2010

Myanmar is scrapping voting in swathes of insurgency-plagued ethnic areas in its first election in two decades — a move criticised as excluding millions from a poll already seen as undemocratic.

State media announced late Thursday that around 300 villages across Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon and Shan states would be excluded from the November 7 election because conditions are not in place for a “free and fair” vote.

One Shan leader, who did not want to be named, estimated that in that state alone about two million people — around 30 percent of the population — would not get the opportunity to vote.

“It’s because of the security there,” he said.

The “Tatmadaw” state army, which has ruled since 1962, has long fought to control the country’s ethnic rebel groups, some of whom have waged decades-long armed uprisings, claiming neglect and mistreatment.

The entire region in Shan state controlled by the military wing of the ethnic Wa, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), has been excluded from the vote, the Shan leader said.

Other groups operating in the affected areas include the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army and the Karen National Liberation Army.

Thailand-based Saw David Taw of the Ethnic Nationalities Council — a coalition of Myanmar ethnic groups — said the junta had shied away from a vote in areas where there is friction with rebels, even though some had agreed peace pacts.

“It seems to me they have a tense relationship with the ceasefire groups,” he said.

A simmering civil war has wracked parts of the country since independence in 1948 and observers say the state’s determination to crush ethnic rebels has increased as elections loomed.

Trevor Wilson, an academic and former Australian ambassador to Myanmar, said the junta had been forced to admit “in a very dramatic and specific way the shortcomings they have in exercising control over the country”.

He said the Wa, a group associated with a vast drug smuggling operation that some say funds its weapons and troops, had instructed citizens in its areas not to participate in the election.

But the move to scrap polls in some areas — which comes after some ethnic minority parties were not permitted to register for the election — further undermines the credibility of the vote, Wilson added.

“The parliaments are going to be even less representative and less inclusive than anybody might have expected,” he said.

Affected areas are not expected to have any representative in parliament.

The vote is the first since a 1990 landslide win by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s party that was never recognised by the junta.

It has been criticised by activists and the West as a sham aimed at putting a civilian face on military rule.

This week state media confirmed that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) had been disbanded after its decision to boycott the election because of rules that would have in effect forced it to eject its leader to participate.

Opposition parties have faced formidable hurdles, including a fee per candidate equivalent to several months’ wages for most people, while a quarter of the legislature is reserved for serving military.

Soe Aung, spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, said the latest restriction showed the military regime’s “true colours” when it comes to dealing with ethnic groups.

He said the move was yet another measure to ensure the junta proxy parties like the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) are unopposed in the election.

“The USDP are trying to ensure they win in every constituency with big majorities,” he said. “I’m not surprised — the election results are already known to the people of Burma.”

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