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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 6, 2010

How to protest a rigged vote
By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK - Myanmar will hold its first elections in 20 years on November 7, with most people believing that the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has already sewn up the result.

But there are signs of a possible protest vote, with the country's voters either snubbing the military rulers' preferred USDP in favor of its lesser political ally, the National Unity Party (NUP), or through a boycott of polling stations altogether.

Like the 1990 polls, the country's charismatic pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, will not be casting her vote. She remains under house arrest in her lakeside

residence in Yangon, where she has spent 15 of the last 21 years. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which swept the 1990 elections which were later annulled by the military, has boycotted the new polls on the grounds the election laws were unfair.

Recently senior government officials have hinted that she may be released in the coming weeks when her current term of house arrest detention is due to expire. To many she remains the best hope for Myanmar's democratic future, and though she will be effectively silenced at the weekend's polls, she may yet play an important role in how the results pan out.

Unlike 1990, when her party the NLD surprisingly swept to victory in the polls and won more than 80% of the seats, the party is not contesting these elections and the NLD leaders, including Suu Kyi, are calling on electors not to cast their vote. The junta has countered with a campaign of fear and intimidation.

"Every citizen who values democracy and wants democratic rule must cast their votes without fail," the state-controlled news media has repeatedly broadcast. It has also warned voters to choose candidates "correctly". Voters have also been cautioned that boycotting the polls is illegal and would be punished with severe prison sentences.

Under the current constitution, adopted two years ago in a referendum that has been severely criticized as a sham by the international community, 25% of the seats in the national, provincial and state parliaments must be reserved for serving soldiers. The president must also have a military background while the commander-in-chief will reserve the right to dismiss the parliament for reasons of national security.

Segments of the international community are already crying foul. "This seems to an exercise aimed at putting a cosmetic veneer on military rule," British ambassador to Myanmar Andrew Heyn told journalists in Bangkok on Thursday. "Nothing is free or fair in the way it is being conducted. It is certainly not inclusive, and the electoral commission overseeing the process is certainly not independent."

Twenty years ago people came out in droves, including soldiers and their wives, to participate in the election the NLD overwhelmingly won. "At that time NLD was not really a party," Aung San Suu Kyi told this correspondent in a telephone interview shortly after her release in July 1995. "It was more of a movement that represented the peoples' aspirations for a freer, fairer and democratic government," she said.

Many voters have expressed disappointment that the NLD opted against fielding candidates - though a splinter group of the NLD is contesting the polls under a new party banner. "Who can I vote for?" said Hla Hla Htay, a food stall owner in Yangon. "I don't want to vote for the military, so there is no one for me to choose."

That believed widespread sentiment raises questions about how voters might opt to lodge a protest vote. "This is the first chance since 1990 for people to punish the government," a Myanmar academic told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. "There will be a strong ground swell of support for any candidate who is not USDP," he predicted.

The pro-military NUP, one of the few contesting parties with a national platform, could benefit from that sentiment - even though they were the military's preferred party and lost overwhelmingly at the 1990 polls. In many seats for the national parliament, they are the only party contesting against the USDP in constituencies.

"I'm too scared to vote for a real opposition candidate," said a former minister in Ne Win's government before 1988. "They will have video-cameras in the polling stations monitoring everyone casting their ballot. So I think I will vote NUP as my best and safest choice," he added.

In the closest approximation of a preliminary opinion poll, fishermen in the southern coastal areas of Myanmar were forced to vote in advance, and more than 80% of them in Dawi voted for the NUP, according to government sources in the area.

The NUP may support the current military regime and its new constitution, but it is not a carbon copy of the junta's USDP. The NUP was born of the Burma Socialist Program Party created by former military dictator General Ne Win. It is now largely comprised of non-military members, including former bureaucrats, businessmen and academics, and professes a commitment to civilian rule.

"We are not allied to the USDP," Khin Maung Gyi, the NUP general secretary told a press conference in Yangon in September. "We will compete fairly against them," he said.

In February, the party told visiting United Nations human-rights envoy Tomas Quintana that they had already chosen some 1,000 candidates and were working on their campaign strategy, including policies related to education, health and the economy.

According to ad hoc opinion polls carried by some news publications and magazines based in Yangon, a majority of those interviewed agreed these were the key issues that a new elected government should aim to address.

Sources in Naypyidaw say the top general has ordered the USDP to win more than 85% of the seats in order to eclipse the NLD's margin of victory in 1990. Although the cards are stacked in the USDP's favor, there is a strong chance it falls short of that threshold.

"If there is a significant vote for the NUP - and I am not saying I am predicting that - it would certainly be a slap in the face for the old man - Than Shwe," ambassador Heyn told Asia Times Online.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

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