April 1 marks the opening of the Burmese by-elections that has Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s iconic democracy fighter, as one of the candidates vying for a seat in the parliament of the military-backed civilian government.
At least 45 seats from Burma’s 664-seat parliament are being contested by 176 candidates from 17 parties, with eight independents. The Lower House has 440 seats (330 elected), the Upper House 224 seats (168 elected) and the regional assemblies 14, with 25% of the seats appointed by the military.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner is seeking to represent Kawhmu district south of Rangoon under the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD).
In 1990, the military government refused to accept NLD’s landslide victory in the election and imprisoned Suu Kyi. The 66-year old Suu Kyi spent a total of 15 years under house arrest during the military rule.
The last time Burma held elections, in 2010, Suu Kyi was still under house arrest and the generals were still in power. The NLD boycotted the 2010 general election on the grounds that election laws were unfair.
Since last year, a series of political, economic and administrative reforms in Burma was undertaken by the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). These reforms included Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, general amnesties of more than 200 political prisoners, institution of new labor laws that allow unions and strikes, relaxation of press censorship and regulations of currency practices, among others.
Hopes for a free and fair election
Election official Maung Maung said the government will make the election free and fair.
A small group of representatives from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), along with the US and a five-man team from the European Union (EU), have been invited to observe polling. The EU will reportedly consider easing some sanctions on Burma if the elections go smoothly.
EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said political sanctions on Burma were mostly “aimed towards individuals” and could be eased when EU foreign ministers met in Brussels on April 23.
The lifting of such sanctions could “even happen with immediate effect”, according to a report by AFP news agency.
In her speech delivered before the polls opened, Suu Kyi said in reference to international observers monitoring the Burmese by-elections, “I hope they will take into consideration the fact that the freeness and fairness of an election does not depend merely on the day of the polling itself but on what went before that day and I hope you will find out as much as possible about what’s been taking place over the last couple of months.
“We have been saddened that the government and the election commission have not been as firm as they might have been with regard to the irregular and at times illegal activities that have been taking place,” she said.
Suu Kyi said NLD experienced harassment and recorded irregularities that are ‘beyond acceptable for democratic elections.’
NLD leaders said opposition candidates were harassed during campaign and election officials excluded voters from election registers, resulting to disenfranchisement.
Suu Kyi said opposition candidates had been targeted in stone-throwing incidents and other acts of intimidation. She also cited vandalism of party campaign posters, and openly blamed some of the acts on “people in official positions”.
She vowed to press forward with her candidacy for the sake of the country and that NLD did not at all regret having taken part in the elections.”
“An election alone is not going to change the country. It’s the people, a change in the spirit of our people, which will change our nation,” Suu Kyi said.
By-elections a step but not real reform
International watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the by-election in Burma is only a step forward and not a real test of the government’s commitment to democratic reform.
“The by-elections will almost certainly bring opposition voices into parliament, and that will be a step forward,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But given the small number of seats involved, these by-elections should not be touted as a serious test of Burma’s commitment to democratic reform. The real test is whether the new parliament can reform repressive law and civilians can assert authority over the military, which continues to commit abuses in ethnic areas.”
HRW added that the existence of political prisoners and abuses in conflict areas show that rights violations persist in Burma.
HRW recently released a report detailing how the Burmese army has attacked Kachin villages, razed homes, pillaged properties, and forced the displacement of tens of thousands of people. Soldiers also threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations and raped women and used antipersonnel mines and conscripted forced laborers, including children as young as 14, on the front lines.
“The Burmese government paradoxically has an interest in a victory by NLD candidates to legitimize its reform process,” HRW said. “But even if it wins most of the available seats it will still constitute a tiny minority of Burma’s parliament. As a result, the elections are not a real test of whether the government is committed to free and fair elections.”
“Burma’s government needs to end the country’s culture of impunity, release all remaining political prisoners, and demonstrate through actions that it respects human rights,” HRW said.
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