Burma: Elections without Free Expression

Burma has been under a military government since a coup in 1962. The last general election held in 1990 was won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) by 392 of 485 seats. Shortly following this, the military leaders ruled out a quick transfer of power due to a lack of constitution and Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD leader, was placed under house arrest for endangering the state.

The military government held the first general election in two decades on November 7. There has been much controversy surrounding the election from the continued house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi  to the banning of all foreign journalists and observers. On 8 March 2010, the Burma’s military regime announced it had enacted the election law for this year’s polls. The most notable points from the laws include:

• Political Parties Registration Law bans democracy organisations or armed groups who oppose the junta, and those receiving support from outside Burma, as well as those who have served prison sentences or are appealing a sentence.

• All political parties must pledge to abide by and protect the 2008 Constitution (which is leans heavily in favour of the current military regime);

• All political parties, including existing parties within 60 days must register with the Commission. The Commission will have the authority to approve or reject any registration;

• The elections may not be held in many ethnic areas controlled by armed ethnic organisations;

• According to the Constitution, in both houses of Parliament, military may take more than 25% of seats;

• The 1990 election results are nullified.                                                          

High profile Burmese have dismissed the election, saying it will be devoid of any credibility and will only serve to legitimise the military rule which has already earned a name for notorious human rights violations.  The Democratic Voice for Burma has also managed to show, with the use of exclusive interviews and hidden cameras, that the military was enforcing strict control and surveillance on all other parties running for election.

The internet had been down for two weeks prior to the election with some saying that this was a deliberate act on the part of the state to limit what journalists can upload and what people can read. This cut off the few sources of independent information available via foreign and diaspora media.  Freedom of information and access to information is extremely limited in Burma as it is and this was further restricted during the election period. Domestic media cannot cover the election freely due to strict controls put in place by the Press Scrutiny and Registration board (which is not an independent body) and the few non-military electoral candidates that have been able to register are also censored by the government. The state-controlled media refuses to print any opposition opinions.

Given such complexities, it may take several months before any sound judgments can be made about electoral changes in the balance of power.

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