Elections in Burma: fine for now, but that may change in the coming days
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Elections in Burma: fine for now, but that may change in the coming days

AMONG the many individuals and institutions that are keeping a close eye on Burma’s elections, a special place is reserved for ‘observer’ organizations, groups tasked with monitoring how the electoral process unfolds.

They are a heterogeneous bunch: there are 12 national and 16 regional groups, fielding about 11 thousand people, and 400 watchers from various embassies. More observers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have joined them, while a number of organizations specialized in this activity have been operating for a while: among them is the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).

On Oct. 6, Asian Correspondent spoke to Damaso G. Magbual, ANFREL’s Head of Mission. The first point he made was that the elections are not quite upcoming: they have been going on for a while and will not be truly over until eventual disputes are settled.

“It is not just a matter of voting, it is really about the whole process, from drafting laws on democracy to conflict resolution after the vote is cast, from the registration of political parties to the freedom to campaign,” contended Mr. Magbual, who said that ANFREL has a permanent office in Burma and that a preliminary mission arrived here in early September.

So far we have not observed anything that should alarm us. There have been irregularities, but then there is no perfect election anywhere.

According to ANFREL, for now the situation looks relatively good, especially when compared to the 2010 elections, which were widely seen as rigged.

“So far we have not observed anything that should alarm us. There have been irregularities, but then there is no perfect election anywhere,” argued Mr. Magbual, saying that the history of a country should also be factored in when judging an election – and recent Burmese history has been dominated by military dictatorship, no less.

Among the issues reported, a major problem is vote buying, which ANFREL said is common throughout the country. This includes providing cash to people who attend rallies – in some instances, up to 20,000 kyats (about $15) from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) according to Mr. Magbual – and plenty of other favors, from promises to build schools and hospitals to handing out gifts during rallies (something which both the USDP and the NLD have engaged in).

There have also been cases of harassment, and votes in ethnic areas have been cancelled. In early October, the Union Elections Commission excluded 600 village tracts in Shan and Kachin State on security grounds.

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Aung San Suu Kyi. Pic: Michele Penna.

ANFREL enjoyed limited access to these areas but told us that where they were allowed to check, conditions were indeed too poor to hold proper elections.

Others took a more sanguine position, with Manam Tu Ja, the leader of the Kachin State Democracy Party, publicly saying that ethnic parties in his areas have been damaged. “We have less chance to get many votes. These areas are where Kachin parties are stronger. The decision has a real impact on Kachin parties in the elections,” he told the media.

Another issue – a “sore point” says Mr. Magbual – is the military vote. As the Burmese military is a political force – perhaps the most powerful in the nation, since the 2008 constitution provides them with 25 percent of seats in parliament – there has been plenty of speculation that soldiers would be harassed into supporting the USDP.

The fact that military personnel expressed their preferences in compounds hermetically closed to outsiders – including to the observers who are supposed to watch the elections – further increased suspicions.

“In 2010, some of the candidates said they were sure they had won. They were confident about it, but when the military votes were added, they suddenly found out they had lost,” said Mr. Magbual, who added that in any case military votes are too few to be decisive at the national level.

A more fundamental problem is the fact that the election of lower house MPs is based on townships, whose populations vary tremendously. Current laws, in other words, provide small constituencies with excessive weight by allowing them to vote for the same number of candidates as much larger communities.

Everything might be alright even on election day, but that does not mean that it will be a fair election.

It is a problem known as “malapportionment” and some suspect it is not just a legislative oversight: the military is supposed to hold more sway in small villages then in cities, since locals there have less chances of being properly informed about the elections and are more likely to be threatened.

According to a report by Myanmar Now, “votes in the smallest constituencies have several hundred times more influence in the Lower House than those in the country’s biggest constituencies.”

The same article noted that some powerful figures are running in tiny constituencies, possibly because winning there is easier. “Thet Swe, a former naval chief, is running for a Lower House seat for the ruling party in tiny Cocokyun, the country’s second smallest constituency,” reads the report.

ANFREL also warned that their analysis – so far quite positive – may change after Sunday. “Everything might be alright even on election day, but that does not mean that it will be a fair election,” says Mr. Magbual. “The polling might be good, but what if the counting is manipulated?”

He drew a parallel with past elections in Cambodia: in one case, he said, “observers said everything was well right after the votes were cast. But the vote counting was still going on and Hun Sen [the current Prime Minister] managed to manipulate it because he controlled the military and the officials.”