Watching Burma: Dispatches from a Turbulent Election Season

UPDATES:
Jan. 15, 2011: The Secret Burmese Network: Radio Netherlands Worldwide
Nov. 15, 2010: Fighting Continues in Burmese Countryside After Aung San Suu Kyi’s Release
Nov. 8, 2010: Burmese Election Turns Violent | Refugee camp photos
Nov. 5, 2010: Limbo on the Burma Frontier

The military regime in Burma is aiming for legitimacy with its first elections in two decades. No independent monitors are permitted to observe the vote. Radio reporter Stephanie Guyer-Stevens and co-producer Lu Olkowski are posted just across the Thai border, with contacts deep inside Burma, and will be sending us dispatches before, during and after the election on November 7. Tensions are already beginning to flare with restive communities long opposed to the regime and who are expected to be fleeing to the refugee camps that dot the frontier. Check back here for radio stories with PRI's The World and NPR's Hidden World of Girls, and blogs as the situation unfolds. This project was supported in part by CIR's Dick Goldensohn Fund for international investigative reporting.


Photo by Malia Guyer-Stevens

Here in Mae Sot, on the Thai/Burma border, it’s late at night, the air is beginning to cool down, sultry from the late rains that have left much of the rest of Thailand swirling under floods. I've arrived here in time for the forthcoming election in Burma, scheduled for November 7. The Burmese military regime's goal of holding elections in Burma is to create the appearance of a "fair democratic election." Its almost certain that the results will be to elect the existing governments’ military leaders, who have stepped down from military office in order to run for election as civilians.

This election will be the first that Burma has held in 20 years, a time span marked by large-scale human rights abuses—there are 2,250 political prisoners according to Human Rights Watch—and by an extraordinary economic decline. The country has dropped from having one of the strongest economies in Southeast Asia, and highest literacy rate, to the bottom of the rung on both counts. Expenditures by the Burmese military (named the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC) now account for between one-third and one-half of the country’s gross domestic product.

The last election resulted in a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still considered by much of the world to be the democratically elected leader of Burma. The military refused to permit Aung San Suu Kyi to take office; instead she has remained under house arrest for 15 of the past 20 years.

[Click here for a full timeline of the house arrest.]

For this election, the military has drawn up regulations that make it impossible for Aung San Suu Kyi to be a candidate—by making it illegal to run for office while under house arrest. In doing so, they officially annulled the results of the vote that first elected her to office as the political leader of the country.

The military has rebuffed all efforts at international monitoring; has banned foreign journalists from reporting on the election from within the country; and has largely sealed its borders. Earlier this week the Thai Prime Minister’s offer to the military government to provide assistance in executing a free and fair election was rebuffed.

Thirty-seven political parties are competing for over 1000 seats in the two houses of the Burmese legislature, which in turn select the President. Of these parties, none of them are Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party. The NLD, along with four other political parties, have been dissolved by the government for a wide array of infractions, chief among them being their criticism of the military dictatorship.

Two of the parties are actually supported and aggressively promoted by the military regime —the Union Solidarity Development Party and the National Union Party. These two parties alone are fielding over 2000 candidates, many of which are military leaders who have stepped down from their positions to run as civilians.

In addition, twenty-five percent of the seats in the lower house have been explicitly set aside for active members of the military—which means that the military leaders who have exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothes will be serving alongside those still in uniform who have been guaranteed a significant legislative presence. In this way, the current regime has created rules designed to ensure their continued dominance of the country.

There are numerous and widespread reports of antagonism and violence towards smaller parties, as well as other forms of pre-election manipulation. Candidates ostensibly representing the Karen ethnic minority party, for example, have been personally selected by the military, not by the Karen themselves—who have been in a long-running, and sometimes violent, struggle with the regime.

But if the election goes as planned, this will seal the deal for the military dictatorship, allowing them to claim democratic legitimacy, providing a line of defense against multiple accusations of human rights abuses, and permanently deleting Aung San Suu Kyi’s claim to leadership.

According to Burmese law, citizens are not required to vote. However, individuals who have been informing Burmese citizens of their right to boycott the election are being jailed. On the other hand the junta has refused to allow the populace to vote in areas where there is the greatest resistance to the military leadership: seven major townships in the Karen state alone will not be allowed to go to the polls.

Prior to British rule, Burma was really a constellation of different ethnic groupings, all of which now are struggling to maintain their own languages and culture. One of the largest of these groups, the Karen, has been offering the greatest resistance to the military regime. The Karen state borders Thailand, and over 100,000 Karen refugees now live in refugee camps along the Thai/Burma border. These are practically the oldest refugee camps in the world, second only to those in the Palestinian territories. The camps are now bracing for a new influx of refugees from across the border as the military intensifies enforcement and plans for post-election violence in the Karen and other ethnic areas.

All of these factors add up to an extremely volatile moment in Burma’s history. We will be posting over the coming weeks in the border area to monitor developments relating to the election on November 7, particularly as it affects ethnic groups.

>> Listen to the story on PRI's The World: "Myanmar citizens have little faith in vote"

Stephanie Guyer-Stevens is executive producer of Outer Voices, a non-profit multimedia production team. Listen to her radio documentary on the fight of the Karen against the government.

 

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