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By-Elections: A Public Relations Game

By Burma Partnership  •  March 26, 2012

With less than one week until the 1 April by-elections in Burma, it is abundantly clear that the process has been anything but free and fair. In an attempt to legitimize the upcoming elections, Thein Sein’s government on Wednesday confirmed that it had invited international monitors to visit Burma and observe the election. However, only one day earlier, it had expelled from the country a representative of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), a regional organization advocating for “free, honest and clean elections.” The decision to allow in international observers but deny access for independent civil society demonstrates that the by-elections are more about winning the approval of the international community than listening to the voices of local communities in Burma.

While international observation of the election is something that has been called for by many foreign governments and non-governmental organizations, the invitation comes too late for the observers to monitor critical portions of the electoral process.  As ANFREL noted in a statement on March 22 “It is regrettable therefore that the invitations, which included the United States, the European Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), come less than two weeks before election day. As Myanmar authorities know, an effective election observation mission requires significantly more time for planning and preparation. Unfortunately, even if observers were to arrive today, they would have already missed more than three quarters of the campaign. ASEAN says that their observers have been asked to arrive only three days before the election.” In a similar sentiment, one columnist noted “In reality, the invitations for international poll observers came too late and with too many limitations. It looks insincere since the regime has a serious wish for lifting of sanctions imposed by the US and the EU. The poll monitoring efforts are seen as a window-dressing.”

Reports of irregularities in the weeks leading up to election day abound, none of which election monitors have had the opportunity to observe. In a statement the National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, decried practices, such as forced attendance at political speeches, by the USDP that were “unacceptable and against the election laws.” Other unfair practices include improper electioneering by president Thein Sein himself and forced early voting in which voters were intimidated into supporting candidates from the army backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

In addition to the electoral process itself, the behavior of the regime continues to demonstrate that it does not see itself as accountable to all of its people. Democracy requires that, not only is the government elected based upon the vote of the majority of the people, but the voice of all the people is heard and the rights of minorities are protected. The regime’s rejection of this principle can be seen most readily in the fact that elections were postponed in all three constituencies in Kachin state, where fighting between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army has been ongoing. The regime has continued to demonstrate that it intends to address the demands for equality by ethnic people militarily rather than through the electoral process.  In recent weeks soldiers from the Burma Army have stormed a Christian conference in Chin state, engaged in further clashes with the Shan State Army South, a group with which the government has signed a ceasefire, and continued its unrelenting offensive against the Kachin Independence Army.

Determining whether an election is credible is about much more than simply what takes place on Election Day. In the case of upcoming elections in Burma, the period leading up to the election has been marked by extensive evidence that Thein Sein’s government views the process primarily as a public relations exercise, an attempt to show the international community that Burma has become a democracy, rather than a true desire to listen to the will of the people.

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