Neither Free nor Fair – Burma’s Sham Elections
By Jonathan Fox
11 October 2010
In March 2010, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, told the U.N. Human Rights Council that the ongoing “gross and systematic violations” of human rights in Burma were “the result of a state policy.” In an unusually straightforward recommendation Ojea Quintana asked the Council to consider establishing a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese military junta.3 In light of this expert recommendation, the United States, Australia, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Canada, New Zealand, France, the Netherlands, and Ireland endorsed the establishment of a CoI on war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma.4
With any luck, the CoI will fulfill two objectives. The first will be to establish a true historic record regarding the ongoing crimes committed inside Burma, one that can later serve as a basis for justice and reconciliation. The second objective is to hold the military junta accountable for the human rights violations committed under its reign. Holding the perpetrators accountable for their crimes against humanity will not only provide a sense of closure and justice for their victims, it will also prove to be a strong deterrent against future human rights violations in Burma. Just as significant as holding elections as part of the transition process to democracy, the CoI will play a key role in the effort to end impunity and provide a foundation for national reconciliation and peace in Burma.
Burma elections in 2010: Fixing the game
Nearly 20 years later the junta is cautiously trying its hand again at elections, having learned from past mistakes. This time around the junta has left little room for chance or embarrassing victories for their opponents. Through several newly instituted laws and a dubious constitution, the military has established its own rules for the elections. The objective of the November polls is not to assess the will of the people, but rather to legitimize and perpetuate the existing military rule under the guise of democratic “reform.” With a more sophisticated approach, the military has removed the need for coercion or back parlor vote-rigging. Having already decided who can run for election and how many seats will be open to contest, the act of voting by Burmese citizens has become a mere formality.
November’s elections results are already clear – a landslide victory to junta-backed parties. A government will then be formed by acting and retired generals, providing the thinnest of civilian veneers to what will be a continuation of the military rule over Burma. U.S. State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley recently acknowledged to reporters that even though SPDC officials shed their uniforms in order to participate in the polls, “a dictator in civilian clothing is still a dictator.”
Step I – Position the Players
In 2008, only days after the country was hit by the devastating cyclone Nargis, the SPDC railroaded through a new constitution. The 2008 Constitution prohibits people serving prison sentences from taking part in politics. The later Political Parties Registration Law (No. 2/2010) specifically bars convicted persons from standing for election to Parliament, being appointed as a Minister, or being considered for the Presidency in Burma. This automatically blocks over two thousand political prisoners – including the noble laureate and NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – from taking any part in these elections or future governments.
In March 2010, the SPDC published the Union Election Commission Law (No. 1/2010), establishing the election commission overseeing the upcoming polls. Chapter II, Article 4 outlines the selection criteria for the commission’s members, including the requirement that members be deemed by the SPDC as “eminent” and with “dignity and experience”. In practice, the election commission was appointed by the junta and filled with loyalists who unilaterally decided who would be able to run for election. Subsequent electoral laws and by-laws impose severe restrictions on political parties, leaving few to believe the elections will be free or fair.
In September, the SPDC Election Commission finalized the list of political parties eligible to participate in the November elections. The Election Commission excluded ten political parties while allowing thirty-seven others to contest the polls. Among the excluded parties were several representatives of ethnic minority groups. As a final affront, the SPDC Election Commission dissolved the National League for Democracy, the Pa-O National Organization, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, the Shan State Kokang Democratic Party, and the Wa National Development Party because they failed to re-register as political parties on time. In total the SPDC has banned from these elections political parties that represented more then 90% of the seats won during the 1990 election.
By mid-September of this year, the international community had caught onto the scam. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valéro said that the NLD’s dissolution was “profoundly shocking” and the result of unjust election laws.5 U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the NLD’s and ethnic nationality parties dissolution exposed the elections in Burma as “a sham process designed to keep the regime in power and deny the Burmese people their right to freely choose their leaders.”6 US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner later added that the NLD’s dissolution was another discouraging sign that the elections will not be democratic.7
  
3. Reuters (11 Mar 10) U.N. rights envoy seeks Myanmar war crimes inquiry; AFP (11 Mar 10) Myanmar abuse may be crimes against humanity: UN expert; AFP (12 Mar 10) UN urges war crimes probe in Myanmar; DVB (11 Mar 10) Burma war crimes probe gets UN backing; Irrawaddy (11 Mar 10) Quintana Recommends UN War Crimes Commission on Burma; Irrawaddy (11 Mar 10) Quintana Recommends UN War Crimes Commission on Burma.
4. PTI (18 Aug 10) US backs creation of UN war crimes commission against Myanmar; UNHRC (08 Jun 10) Human Rights Council holds General debate on human rights situations that require the Council's attention; Irrawaddy (8 Apr 10) Czech Supports UN War Crimes Inquiry on Burma; BCUK (25 Mar 10) UK Government supports Burma regime referral to International Criminal Court; Human Rights Council (15 Mar 10) Human Rights Council considers Human Rights situations in Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Myanmar; European Parliamentary Caucus on Burma (07 Sep 10) European MPs welcome Hungary support for Burma crimes; Mizzima News (25 Sep 10) Ireland weighs in on UN inquiry into Burma abuses; Canadian Friends of Burma (02 Sep 11) Canada to Support UN Commission of Inquiry on Burma; UN Human Rights Council (17 Sep 10) Human Rights Council holds General Debate on Human Rights Situations that require the Council's attention; Mizzima News (21 Sep 10) Dutch, New Zealanders back UN inquiry on junta abuses.
5. AFP (15 Sep 10) France ’shocked’ by Myanmar’s dissolution of Suu Kyi party.
6. UK Mission to the UN (16 Sep 10) Foreign Secretary on Burma.
7. UPI (21 Sep 10) Washington irked by Myanmar elections.