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By-Elections Must Not Be Seen as Benchmark of Reform

By Burma Partnership  •  March 19, 2012

The international community, including many western governments, has indicated that it views the upcoming 1 April by-elections in Burma as a key benchmark in the country’s reform process  and many have argued that a successful process should lead to the lifting of economic sanctions. However, free and fair balloting alone is insufficient to demonstrate that the by-elections have moved Burma into a period of true democracy because the process has been structured to maintain the military’s grip on power.

Only 48 seats in the Parliament, 7% of the total available parliamentary seats, are being contested in the by-elections. Those seats being contested are open predominantly because the individual originally elected to fill them, all of whom are members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was appointed to a position in the executive branch. Thus, only a small fraction of the country will be participating in this election and the vast majority of the people of Burma will continue to be represented by the individuals who supposedly won the 2010 elections, which were nothing more than a sham.

Much has also been made of the participation of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD), which boycotted the 2010 elections. However, given the very small number of seats being contested on 1 April, the USDP is guaranteed to maintain its majority in the Parliament. Thus the regime does not perceive the NLD’s participation as a threat to its grip on power, demonstrating that its willingness to allow the NLD to campaign throughout the country represents a public relations maneuver more than a true openness to allow the people to determine the direction in which the country should move. Despite the lack of threat to the regime’s hold on power, reports of irregularities continue to abound.

Additionally, the by-elections are taking place under the 2008 Constitution, which is one of the greatest obstacles to democracy in Burma. As Daw Suu said in a televised interview as part of the NLD’s election campaign, “We know that the current Constitution is not in line with democratic principles. Giving an obvious well-known example, the citizens know that the Parliament comprises 25 per cent of parliamentary representatives who are not elected.”

The by-elections also demonstrate the regime’s pattern of leaving the ethnic nationalities behind when embarking on political change. In Kachin State where armed conflict continues and civilians continue to suffer horrific human rights abuses, there are seats being contested in three townships. In one of these districts, Hpakant constituency, where a lower house seat is available, polling stations will not be opened in ten villages located in an area controlled by the Kachin Independence Army as well as in a number of other areas due to what the regime claims is a “security threat.” The voter lists from this area have also been reduced by about one third since the 2010 elections with more than 50,000 people struck from the voting registry due to failure to register as a member of a family in the district.

It is abundantly clear that, regardless of what takes place on 1 April, the by-elections do not represent true democracy. Democratic countries around the world must take a principled stand and insist on a free and fair process in which all of the citizens of Burma, including members of ethnic nationalities, are able to exercise their right to vote for the candidate of their choice without restriction or manipulation by the regime.

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