Keeping Burma’s Elections in Perspective

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Burma's parliamentary by-elections on Sunday were seen as a make or break moment for the reform process that has taken place over the last two years. The country, long ruled by one of the world's most repressive authoritarian regimes, inaugurated a new parliament and a nominally civilian government in early 2011, though both are still dominated by the military and its allies. The authorities have since taken a series of other steps, such as the release of some political prisoners that were designed to improve relations with democratic powers including the United States. The international community in turn has sought to engage the new leadership and encourage further reforms.

To many foreign governments, the by-elections for 45 open seats in the roughly 600-seat bicameral legislature were a litmus test for the lifting or relaxing of long-standing sanctions. For example, in response to Sunday's balloting, the European Union has already announced that it would look favorably on Burma in reconsidering sanctions. But many involved in monitoring the elections would be the first to admit that this single round of voting is neither an accurate nor an entirely positive indicator of the state of democratic reforms.

On the surface, the Burmese government appears to have taken measures to meet international requirements for democratic elections. But President Thein Sein issued his invitation to U.S. and EU monitoring missions less than two weeks before election day. Such enterprises require about six weeks to prepare on average, and they typically include observation of the entire preelection period. Some would-be observers encountered bureaucratic obstacles. For example, Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) executive director Somsri Hananuntasuk was deported for having the wrong kind of visa. ANFREL subsequently decried the international monitoring efforts for coming  too late, and with too many restrictions. According to the Burma Partnership, the way in which observers were invited and the related actions of the Burmese government suggest that  the by-elections are more about winning the approval of the international community than listening to the voices of local communities in Burma. 

In the weeks leading up to the vote, allegations of irregularities and fraud began to proliferate, and ethnic minority communities in particular faced many hurdles. Certain groups have continued to face violence and displacement under the new government, as security forces clash with ethnic militias. And while other groups have made strides in their relationship with the state, many remain effectively disenfranchised. In some districts, violence was cited as a justification for indefinitely postponing elections, even though opposition politicians had been able to travel there and campaign without difficulty. Ethnic divisions seem to have become so entrenched in Burma's political structure that the few recent ceasefire agreements may be destined to collapse.

Among other reports of electoral interference, independent candidates said they were harassed, the Electoral Commission blocked certain campaign activities, voter rolls included names of deceased residents, and some individuals affiliated with Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) or other opposition parties were denied registration. At the polls, many who sought to vote for opposition candidates found that wax coating their ballots prevented them from doing so. Despite these apparent flaws, one EU observer has already said that she saw very encouraging signs at the few polling stations she visited around Yangon. But she conceded that what she and a colleague had observed was not enough to assume that it is indicative of how the process was conducted in other parts of the country and certainly not enough to talk about credibility of elections. 

The NLD still overwhelmingly won the by-elections, despite any irregularities. The government is seeking the removal of sanctions, and a win for Suu Kyi serves its short-term interests by sending a strong and obvious signal to the international community that a new Burma is ready to engage. Moreover, some have argued that the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will use the by-elections to co-opt the NLD and its leader without surrendering any real power, and bolster its legitimacy ahead of the 2015 general elections.

Avoiding such an outcome could be one of Aung San Suu Kyi's greatest challenges. Her idealism as a candidate and a beloved opposition figure will be sorely tested by the realities of leading a tiny parliamentary faction in a skewed constitutional system that gives the military and its allies enormous power. She seems to be well aware of her situation. Asked on March 30 to rate Burma's democracy on a scale of one to 10, she replied, "We're trying to get to one."

Incumbent lawmakers have said they are willing to discuss and support any useful proposals from the NLD, but it remains to be seen whether the recent balloting will lead to progress on key issues like the status of political prisoners, censorship and limitations on free speech, and continued violence against ethnic minorities. It is therefore imperative that the international community use this period of greater engagement to address rather than overlook such critical human rights concerns. Limited elections, however dramatic their results, are only a first step on Burma's long road to democratization.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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