When they take place later this year, elections in Burma (Myanmar) will not be free and fair.
But in a country silenced for 20 years, an imperfect vote will be better than no election at all. The international community should be ready to take advantage of this regardless of who’s in power.
Many believe that the military regime in Burma, the poorest country in Southeast Asia, is one of the world’s most repressive and abusive regimes. Forced labor is still widespread, and the government is known for regular human rights violations and violent crackdowns. In March, the dictatorship announced it was going to hold the first elections in 20 years. This has drawn a lot of international attention and skepticism.
In Burma’s last democratic election in 1990, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi led her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to a landslide victory. But the result was not accepted by the junta, and since then she has spent most of the past 15 years in detention.
This spring Ms. Suu Kyi announced her party would boycott the polls if the elections do happen. While she was constitutionally barred from standing for the office of president, ambiguities in the new election law meant that it was not automatically apparent that she would have been barred from running for parliament. With her boycott, however, those wishing to vote against the regime now have less choice – symbolically or otherwise.
The election will bring into force a flawed constitution, but it will be one that creates new political institutions. There will be a presidential system, two houses of parliament as well as 14 regional governments and assemblies. Despite the fact that most of the spots will probably go to the regime’s cronies, it will be the most wide-ranging transformation in a generation and offers an opportunity for a change in the future direction of the country.
Also, the wake of the elections will come with a generational change in leadership as the aging Senior Generals Than Shwe and Maung Aye are likely to step down or take on ceremonial roles. Of course, this is not automatically a step for the better, but it is nonetheless highly significant.
Critics argue that participation in an election is pointless (or wrong in principle). Some argue an election should not take place until conditions are perfect. They say voters – including those in the regime and their family members, many who would have voted for the NLD in 1990 – could not possibly be in a position to cast their votes freely this time around.
But such arguments belittle the bravery of the ordinary citizen who in an act of defiance has often wrought change against decades of oppression.
Consider what happened in Timor-Leste: It would not be a free nation today except for the courage of hundreds of thousands of individuals each casting their own vote. The possibilities for intimidation and vote-rigging in Burma should not be underestimated, but neither should the bravery and determination of voters. Even if the elections are nothing but a good relations publicity-stunt, as they likely are, the international community and citizens within Burma should be determined to make the best of a flawed situation.
Any evolution from half a century of authoritarian rule is going be slow, halting, and imperfect. As elsewhere, flawed elections will be a part of that transition. Some political space has already been created for such transition: For example, some parties have started discussing future legislative proposals and drafting laws. This is hardly a major step toward democracy, but something that would have been unthinkable – and illegal – a year ago.
With fresh allegations of military links between Burma and North Korea, as well as indications that Burma may be flirting with nuclear and missile technology, there is fresh momentum internationally to further reinforce Burma’s pariah status. But surrounded by powerful and engaged neighbors such as India and China as well as integration into the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the country is far from isolated.
Sanctions have failed to achieve their objectives over many years. Rather than go back to what has not worked, efforts should be made to reintegrate Burma with the community of nations. The international community can use the news of elections as a window to such change.
To be sure, it seems very likely that the vote will go ahead without the regime changing course. But the opportunity is still there. When a new government is sworn in after the vote, the international community should criticize unfair elections, but it should also not be blinded to the significance of the change.