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Fraudulent Elections Undermine Citizen’s Electoral Rights

By Burma Partnership  •  January 18, 2011

“There was intimidation and forced voting. People in the villages also said they were given presents and money. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) told voters to vote for them at the polling station. The uneducated people were convinced by the USDP. We also realized that the USDP had many advance votes. The USDP conducted a census of elderly people and counted them all as advance votes. I do not think significant changes will occur after the election. This is just to change the name [of the government].”

A voter from Irrawaddy Division

Burma’s elections took place in a highly undemocratic and repressive environment governed by a countrywide entrenched climate of fear. This environment, coupled with a lack of voter secrecy, ensured that the regime and its allied parties were able to easily carry out electoral fraud on a widespread and systematic basis. Through the manipulation of advance votes, tampering of voter lists, vote buying, and illegal campaigning, the USDP was able to comfortably secure an overwhelming victory, despite the complete lack of genuine public support.

Voting Environment

An overwhelming lack of secrecy and a pervasive climate of fear governed the elections. Throughout the country, polling station officials, the authorities and the regime-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) repeatedly violated voters’ rights to a secret ballot. The polling booth itself was constructed to allow polling station officials to monitor voters to the extent of observing the contents of voters’ ballots. As noted by one Peace and Diversity candidate Aung Myo Oo, the booths had little privacy, with officials stationed close to voters as their marked their ballots. “This is not a secret ballot,” he stated, “[voters] might think they will be in trouble unless they vote for the USDP.”

In Mudon Township, Mon State, voters reported that the Election Commission recorded their personal information along with their ballot number, allowing authorities to easily assess how each voter voted. In particular, this allowed the regime to determine who had failed to support the USDP, and would then suffer the consequences of their choices.

As explored earlier in Burma Election Tracker’s analysis of the use of intimidation and harassment in the elections, the lack of ballot secrecy served not only as a preventative mechanism to ensure overwhelming, albeit unwilling, support for the USDP, but also as a tool to dole out punishments for resistance. The lack of secrecy and climate of fear together created an environment conducive to extensive acts of election fraud; with little voter secrecy or individual agency, the regime was able to influence the results of the elections on a countrywide scale.

Forms of Fraud

Abuse of Advance Votes

In the lead up to the elections, the USDP and authorities carried out extensive advance vote campaigns, soliciting advance votes from large swathes of the public. In a typical democratic election, provisions for advance or absentee votes allows for broader participation, particularly amongst populations who would not otherwise be able to vote on the day of elections. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)’s election laws detail those who are eligible for advance votes: “an eligible voter who is included in the voting roll and who will be away from his constituency on the day of election,” as well as those who:

“Having contracted leprosy; being seriously ill; being of old age; giving birth; being detained in a police custody or in prison; taking medical treatment as an in-patient in hospital; being civil services personnel, Defence Services personnel or members of the Police Force who are on temporary duty, away from the area in which they have their voting roll” [Pyithu Hluttaw Electoral Law, Amyotha Hluttaw Electoral Law, Regions and States Hluttaw Electoral Law, Article 45 (b), (c)]

This list essentially details those who would be otherwise greatly inconvenienced, or incapable of casting ballots on the day of elections.  However, the regime appeared to completely disregard their own election laws when conducting advance voting. Rather than carrying out the procedure to accommodate those who could not otherwise cast ballots, authorities solicited advance votes from whole communities through misinformation, manipulation and harassment. Rather that providing for increased voter participation, the regime’s advance vote provisions merely served to manipulate the electorate into unwillingly or unconciously casting votes for the USDP.

The elections laws also state that advance voting should be arranged by the respective election sub-commissions at the township, ward, or village tract level [Pyithu Hluttaw Electoral Law, Amyotha Hluttaw Electoral Law, Regions and States Hluttaw Electoral Law, article 45]. However, many voters experienced a very different procedure. Sent to households of USDP members, voters were explicitly coerced into casting advance ballots for the USDP. One village headman in Karenni State was summoned by SPDC officials, taken to a USDP office and manipulated into casting a ballot for the USDP without his knowledge or consent.

The USDP were heavily involved in the whole process. Not only did their offices serve as primary locations for advance voting but moreover, USDP members were responsible for conducting door to door advance vote campaigns. One villager in Mon state recounted their experience: “Advance votes were being collected house by house especially from elderly people. Some villagers refused to cast advance votes and they were threatened. It was USDP – in groups of 5-6 people – collecting advance votes.” Advance voting campaigns relied heavily on the use of force, threats of violence, abuse of government authority or misinformation. Few voters were aware of the proper procedures, and even if they did, they were in no position to resist the command of the authorities.

In another breach of the SPDC’s election laws and regulations, advance voting was conducted well outside of the official period – November 5 to 6 – hardly a surprise given the amount of advance votes they managed to collect. Ballots were often left unsealed, and thus vulnerable to vote tampering. Moreover, some voters were unable to cast advance votes for any party other than the USDP, violating their right to freely cast ballots for their candidate of choice.

Manipulation of Voter Lists

Another type of fraud that infringed on voters’ rights to participate freely in the political process was the widespread manipulation of voter lists. Certainly, with little experience holding elections or conducting cohesive census, the presence of flawed voter lists was not entirely unexpected; however it appears as if, in many circumstances, the addition of ineligible voters and omission of eligible voters was a deliberate fraudulent act to manipulate the voter list in favor of the regime.

In many communities, significant portions of the population were omitted from the voter lists, and were thus denied the right to vote. According to one SNDP member, the voter lists in areas of Shan State were particularly flawed and excluded vast parts of the community.  For example, he noted: “There are actually about 3,000 voters in Mongnang but only 800 voters’ names were in the list. Similarly, there were 800 voters in Mangkhem and the authorities said there were only 500.

Individual residents in Shan State observed similar issues on the day of the polls. One resident in Kyaukme Township, Shan State noted that many people in his community was left off the voter lists. “Not only did I not see my name on the board but also those of my family. No one from our family was in the voters list,” he said, “There are many people that were not in the list.”

Exclusion was often politically motivated. Activists in Arakan State were removed from the voter lists due to their participation in pro-democracy demonstrations, including the 2007 Saffron Revolution. “Some people lost their right to vote in the election. The authorities removed them from the voters list because they are against the USDP,” stated a local politician, “Most of the democracy activists and NLD members have been excluded from the voters list.“

Some were not deterred by the regime’s violations of their rights. “We have no problem despite the authorities removing our name from the voters list,” said one NLD youth member in Arakan State, “the election is neither free nor fair and our party is not in the election fray. So we do not care that our names have been removed from the voters list.”

Some voters did have the opportunity to challenge their exclusion from the voter list – albeit with some conditions. One local in Rangoon Division reported that although his name was missing from the voter list, polling station officials offered to include his name on the list if he agreed to vote for the USDP.

Not only were eligible voters prevented from voting, but moreover, ineligible voters were wrongfully included in the voter list. In Arakan State, authorities were observed omitting eligible voters from the list, as well as asking underage residents to vote for the USDP. In Irrawaddy Division, polling station officials reportedly noted down names of those deceased, and allocated their vote for the USDP.

Vote Buying

Vote buying during the 2010 Elections took many forms – cash, donations, material goods, social benefits, and economic benefits. Regardless of international election standards, even the SPDC’s Election Laws clearly state that such acts are indeed election violations:

“Whoever is found guilty of or abetting one of the following acts shall, on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or with fine not exceeding one hundred thousand kyats or with both:

(a) giving and taking bribes by way of money, goods, foodstuff, position or service transfer or by using any other right in order to obtain the electoral right by unlawful means or as gratitude for obtaining such right; (Pyithu Hluttaw Electoral Law, Amyotha Hluttaw Electoral Law, Regions and States Hluttaw Electoral Law, Article 58(a))”

However, this election law appears to have not deterred many of the election candidates, particularly NUP or USDP candidates. In Rangoon Division, USDP candidate U Aung Than Oo and chairman of the rice merchants association reportedly pledged to give 500,000 kyat to local villages if the USDP won 90% of the votes or 400,000 kyat for 75% of the votes. U Aung Than Oo later won in his constituency.

Another USDP Candidate, Deputy Foreign Minister Maung Myint was observed offering 20,000 kyat loans to local farmers, spending millions of kyat in an attempt to gain votes. U Maung Myint also won in his constituency – .Mingin, Sagaing Division.

Vote buying has also taken the form of donations that seek to gain the goodwill of residents. U Thein Zaw, a USDP Candidate in Myitkyina, Kachin State reportedly donated 3 million kyat to the Kachin Roman Catholic Church. U Thein Zaw’s campaigns were also successful, gaining him a victory on the day of elections. Other USDP candidates campaigned by providing smaller material goods, free health care, and promises to grant villagers the freedom to grow opium. All these campaigns undoubtedly contributed to USDP’s overwhelming election victory.

Illegal Campaigning and Vote Tampering

On the day of the polls, the elections were marked by rampant election fraud, with illegal campaigning and harassment taking place at the polling station. Polling Stations failed to protect ballot secrecy; given the pervasive climate of fear and rampant abuses of authority, the lack of ballot secrecy not only deterred voters from supporting ethnic or democracy parties, but further allowed the regime to tamper with votes and target those who had not supported regime backed parties.

The SPDC’s election laws dictate that campaigning on the day of elections within 500 yards of a polling booth is an election violation, and a punishable offense [Pyithu Hluttaw Electoral Law, Amyotha Hluttaw Electoral Law, Regions and States Hluttaw Electoral article 61]. Nevertheless, voters reported numerous incidents of USDP party members campaigning inside polling booths on the day of the polls and illicitly influencing voters.

In Mandalay Division, voters reported that USDP members canvassed for votes inside the polling station, openly calling upon voters to cast ballots for the USDP. In Arakan State, USDP members inside the polling station urged voters to support the USDP; one National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD) member, who was serving as an election monitor at the polling station, was forcibly removed for interfering in a polling booth and objecting to such incidents of vote rigging and illegal campaigning by the USDP.

The lack of ballot secrecy meant that the presence of USDP members campaigning illegally in the polling station could have had a significant impact on voters’ decisions. Furthermore, the ballots were vulnerable to vote tampering; many advance ballots were not sealed and open to manipulation. (See BET photo of unsealed ballots). Numerous accounts from inside democracy networks documented instances of vote tampering in favor of the USDP while counting ballots.

Such incidents of fraud significantly altered the outcome of the elections, with many candidates criticizing the regime’s use of electoral fraud as proof of the regime’s plans to perpetuate military rule. The widespread acts of fraud completely violated the nature of democratic elections and ensured that they would fail to bring about any positive political progress. In an election system structured without measures to hold the Election Commission accountable, the SPDC was able to carry out the elections solely on their own terms, completely undermining the principles of democracy and human rights in Burma.

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