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“A Step Towards Step One in Democracy”

By Burma Partnership  •  April 2, 2012

“We won, we won” was the chant that resonated throughout the streets of Rangoon all night yesterday and waking up this morning had an unprecedented taste of joy and hope for the people of Burma. It is the “triumph of the people who have decided that they have to be involved in the political process in this country,” said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi today after the NLD claimed it has won 43 seats out of the 45 contested. Reports still vary and the official results will only be known later this week, after the Union Election Commission confirms them. In yesterday’s by-elections, more than six million people were eligible to vote, 160 candidates from 17 parties were contesting 45 parliamentary seats.

“A step towards step one in democracy” is how Daw Suu qualified the by-elections, reminding the world that even with the NLD wining yesterday, Burma is not a democracy yet but just slowly starting a fragile transition process in which genuine irreversible reforms need to replace the superficial changes done so far. As Burma Campaign UK outlined in a briefer released this week, “By-elections don’t mean Burma is free.”

“Rampant irregularities” have been taking place, said NLD spokesman Nyan Win who reported that by midday alone on Sunday the party had filed more than 50 complaints to the Union Election Commission. Most alleged violations concern waxed ballot papers that make it difficult to mark votes and ballot cards that lacked the Election Commission’s seal, which would render them invalid. There have also been irregularities all along the campaign, such as restrictions on where Daw Suu has been able to hold campaign events, difficulties in her travels, problematic voter lists, bribing of voters, manipulation of advance polls and cancelling of the polls in three constituencies in Kachin State. International observers as well, ahead of the elections, reported voters list irregularities including cases where same names are repeated up to 20 times. Daw Suu herself said on Friday that the “by-elections are neither free nor fair and that the irregularities went beyond what is acceptable for democratic elections.

“She may not be able to do anything at this stage,” said a voter who cast his ballot for Daw Suu at Wah Thin Kha, a village in the rural constituency south of Rangoon where she was running.  He is right: the number of seats at stake is not enough to change the balance of power or threaten the military-backed ruling Union State and Development Party. Rather, the by-elections have been seen as a public relations game played by the government to please the international community and have sanctions lifted. “The government stands to benefit more from relatively free and fair elections because it adds to the international perception that there is democratic progress underway in the country. Having Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD members in Parliament will give an appearance of opposition in the government, while in reality, they will have very little ability to affect the most-needed changes, such as amending the 2008 Constitution and repealing repressive laws,” said Khin Ohmar, Coordinator of Burma Partnership. Therefore, while it is exciting to see Daw Suu elected by the people, these by-elections must not be seen as a significant benchmark of progress.

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