April 1st Elections: Will Burma Pass The Progress Test?

NLD Chairperson Daw Aung San Suu Kyi together with NLD patron U Tin Oo, NLD candidate for Thonegwa Daw Suu Suu Lwin made a campaign trip on February 26th to Thonegwa Township. Photo courtesy National League for Democracy.

Burma’s April 1st elections are a crucial step toward assuring the international community that the country is making meaningful progress toward democratic reform, says independent watchdog Freedom House. The organization welcomes the decision to allow foreign observers to monitor the election as a positive step toward safeguarding the transparency and legitimacy of the election process but remains concerned about reports of fraud and harassment in the lead up to elections.

“The by-elections provide an opportunity to continue Burma’s recent improvements, but they are only a start in what should be a long-term plan by the government to implement reforms,” said David Kramer, president of Freedom House. “Allowing monitors is a positive development, though the invitation came a bit late as they were unable to observe the campaign process and investigate reports of intimidation and manipulation.”

The organization is especially concerned about the deportation of Somsri Hananuntasuk, Executive Director of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), a regional network of civil society organizations promoting democratization. Ms. Hananuntasuk said she was forced by the Burmese authorities to leave the country on March 20th and her assistants, Rangsima Suttipongkiat and Tadzrul Adha, faced the same fate a day later.

Burmese Myanmar authorities asked her to leave the country because she had entered Burma on a tourist visa. Ms. Hananuntasuk and her colleagues were in Burma to try to meet with the Union Election Commission and submit a letter requesting formal accreditation for an observation mission, as well as to share election experiences from the rest of Asia with local groups.

ANFREL said that is regrettable that the invitations to outside observers — which included the United States, the European Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — come less than two weeks before election day, stating that an effective election observation mission requires significantly more time for planning and preparation.

“While it is too late for any observation mission that meets international standards, ANFREL urges the government of Burma to allow full access for those observers it has invited as well as for local observer groups. Burma’s recent progress on democratic reforms has been very encouraging, but much remains to be done,” Ms. Hananuntasuk said. She added that “if the government of Burma wishes to hold truly free and fair elections as it claims, it must accept international standards which include independent election observation.”

The 45 seats at stake in Burma represent less than 7 percent of all seats in parliament, and less than 10 percent of all elected seats. The by-elections thus do not threaten the ruling party’s grasp on power, which will remain secure until the next general election in 2015. The military still occupies a quarter of all seats in parliament, as mandated by the constitution.

Burma has been included in Freedom House’s Worst of the Worst report for 27 of the last 38 years, placing it among the world’s most oppressive regimes. Freedom House denounced Burma’s 2010 elections as fundamentally flawed. “The regime’s actions over the next three years, as it faces the prospect of ceding power to a civilian government, will reveal whether it is as committed to reform as it claims to be,” added Mr. Kramer.

There have been some signs of positive change in advance of the upcoming by-elections. The primary opposition party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has agreed to participate in the by-elections after boycotting 2010’s election. NLD’s participation signals public support for reforms put forward by President Thein Sein during the past year, including increased space for independent media and the release of more than 600 political prisoners in January 2012.

However, serious concerns remain, including a number of political dissidents still in prison and ethnic minorities who continue to face violence and displacement. Moreover, while the Burmese government has promised democratic reforms in the past, it has repeatedly failed to deliver.

Burma’s censorship chief, Tint Swe, told Radio Free Asia’s Burmese Service also gave assurances that media will be able to cover the event freely. “Regarding by-elections, I can at least say that, on print media part, there will be no restrictions at all.  Nor are there orders or restrictions issued,” he told RFA’s Burmese service.

He said 400 domestic and 100 foreign journalists had been credentialed to cover the polls. “All journalists can freely go and watch at all 45 constituencies, besides the three constituencies in which the vote is cancelled,” he added.

Yet, Burmese authorities censored a key election campaign speech of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, removing portions related to the abuses of the previous military junta and the absence of the rule of law in the country. Ms. Suu Kyi told RFA that the authorities had removed a paragraph from the text of her speech to be aired by state radio and television as part of her National League of Democracy (NLD) party broadcast ahead of April 1 by-elections.

In that paragraph, she had accused the military junta, which ruled Burma with an iron fist for decades, of not respecting the rule of law and of manipulating the law to punish the people. “I had to submit my speech ahead of time and one paragraph was censored,” Aung San Suu Kyi said in an interview with RFA on March 8th.

“The part about how there wasn’t rule of law and the military government had repeatedly used the law to repress the people, that is censored,” she said.

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