July 20, 2010 · Posted in: Cross Border

Burmese polls a surreal exercise

OUR ELECTIONS are far from perfect, but recent encounters with friends from Burma remind us we still have a lot to be thankful for. The PCIJ played host to some Burmese visitors a few months ago, and just last week, we also hied off to Bangkok to conduct a workshop for Burmese journalists. Our Burmese friends have been asking us: What are elections like? How do you cover them?

And the most crucial, yet quite poignant, question: What happens when you vote?

The innocence is staggering, but the determination is breathtaking; an entire generation has grown up with no knowledge or experience in elections.

You see, in a month, maybe two, or maybe even never, the people of Burma – renamed ‘Myanmar’ by the ruling junta — will come out and vote for the first time in 20 years. And a day after that, or maybe two days, or maybe never, the people of Burma will have a new set of members for their local and national parliaments, also known as Legislative Bodies, or Pyithu Hluttaws.

Burma’s elections, if they do take place, are more than just an occasional exercise of quasi-democracy; they are also an exercise in speculation and wishful thinking.

Consider these:

-The ruling Junta announced the holding of elections for the Pyithu Hluttaws this year; exactly when this year is a gambler’s guess. It was supposed to be in May; now there is talk of having it in October. Given that the last election on Burmese soil was held in 1990, the Junta appears to treat the election as a very trivial pursuit.

-The 1990 elections weren’t encouraging anyway. The opposition won majority of the seats in Parliament in the 1990 elections, but rather than quibble with election protests, the junta simply nullified the results and threw the opposition in jail. No more arguments, problem solved.

-The other, more recent political exercise was not very encouraging either. In 2008, while Myanmar teetered on the brink of a breakdown because of Typhoon Nargis, the junta decided to hold a referendum for a new Constitution. Unsurprisingly, the new Constitution was ratified with 92.48 percent in favor of the charter. Unsurprisingly, too, voter turnout was a high of 91.8 percent, says the Burmese junta. It is enough to put our Commission on Elections to shame.

-While the political lines are clearly drawn between the junta and the opposition symbolized by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, voters are at a quandary because no one from the opposition is running. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) has announced a boycott of the elections, fearing that the polls would just legitimize the junta’s rule. At the same time the junta has prohibited anyone who has ever been arrested or convicted from running in the elections, effectively banning the entire opposition from the polls.

There are many more reasons why elections in the magical kingdom of Myanmar would be surreal.

To begin with, the Constitution which the people of Myanmar apparently wholeheartedly ratified after staggering out of the mud and waste of Typhoon Nargis, reserved 25 percent of the seats in both houses of the national parliament for the military. As if that were not enough, the Constitution also reserves one-third of the seats in the parliaments of the 14 states and regions of the country for the exclusive use of the military. In other words, while the Burmese people are still confused as to when they will cast their votes, one out of every four parliamentarians has already been appointed by the military. People want to vote, after having been deprived of this right for 20 years. But what do you do when you don’t have anyone to vote for except the junta?

Talk to a Burmese about the referendum for the Constitution, and you are likely to get a blank stare. Despite the apparently magnificent turnout, few people really know what happened. That’s because journalists are not allowed 300 feet from the voting centers. There are no such things as observers, and watchdogs are those little mongrels with four legs that are meant to guard prisons. More than that, no one is allowed to watch or observe while the government’s election commission counts the votes. It is government’s way of saying, trust us, you have no choice. We have already won anyway.

Yet Burmese journalists intend to cover the supposedly upcoming polls, even if their government swats at them like seditious little fleas. Recently, a Burmese journalist was sentenced to 20 years in prison for violating the so-called Electronics Act. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) identified the journalist as Hla Hla Win, who was arrested for interviewing monks for the anniversary of the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The CPJ says there are at least nine Burmese journalists in prison that the group knows of, although there are probably many more.

Burmese are under no illusions that the previous referendum, or the coming elections, are going to be clean. When we told some Burmese of the phenomenon of “flying voters” in the Philippines, where people are paid to go from one voting precinct to another to vote using fake IDs, one Burmese remarked that they had “swimming voters.” Apparently, people who had drowned during Typhoon Nargis had still been able to “cast their votes” in the 2008 referendum for the Constitution. One would wish that politics could breath new life to people in a different way.

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