Burma (Myanmar) holds first vote in 20 years

Burma's voters went to the polls today as opposition leaders complain of widespread electoral irregularities, including intimidation of voters by government officials.

Khin Maung Win/AP
HOME STRETCH: A member of the National Democratic Front gave a pamphlet to a trishaw driver Oct. 23 in Rangoon, Burma, ahead of Nov. 7 elections. Detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi could be freed soon.

Voters in military-ruled Burma (Myanmar) went to the polls Sunday in a rare election that has been widely criticized as rigged in favor of pro-junta politicians.

Unofficial results of the first vote since 1990 are expected in the next day or two, setting the stage for what could be months of backroom maneuvers to form a new civilian government, the first in decades.

Turnout appeared to be low in many areas as apathetic voters stayed away, according to local observers and overseas Burmese media.

The former political party of Aung San Suu Kyi – the imprisoned democracy icon who won in a landslide in 1990 but was prevented from ruling and has been under off-and-on house arrest ever since – had urged a national boycott to protest the unfair rules. But some opposition candidates and informal monitors claimed that turnout, which has only symbolic importance, may have been around 60 percent, despite the boycott campaign.

“People are going through the motions while feeling that the outcome is probably predictable,” Andrew Heyn, Britain’s ambassador to Burma, told foreign correspondents in Thailand.

Media ban

Virtually all news media were barred from covering the election and a Japanese reporter was reportedly arrested after slipping into a border town from Thailand. International election monitors were also turned away.

Few Burmese expect dramatic changes to emerge from the election, which will create a bicameral legislature that doubles as an electoral college to select the president, who has wide ranging constitutional powers. The military has a reserved bloc of 25 percent of the seats. But pragmatists argue that a slow transition from the current regime is under way and that more space for opposition voices could follow.

Opposition alleges widespread irregularities

In recent weeks, opposition leaders have complained of widespread electoral irregularities, including intimidation of voters by government officials. Several parties have said they would file formal complaints to the junta-run election commission over alleged fraud in the manipulation of ballots, though analysts say there is little chance of redress.

One particular concern, according to the opposition, is the casting of advance ballots by civil servants and military personnel, who are expected to favor the United Solidarity and Development Party led by members of the ruling junta. Some argue that this allows ballot stuffing, since there is virtually no transparency in the count.

Obama, other Western leaders condemn the vote

Many Western governments have already condemned Burma’s election as undemocratic and highlighted the exclusion of Ms. Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. Speaking in Mumbai during a state visit to India, President Obama said the "fundamentally flawed" elections “demonstrated the regime's continued preference for repression and restriction over inclusion and transparency.”

Armed police were spotted in Rangoon, the largest city, but there were only isolated reports of violence. In areas where armed militia groups are either fighting government troops or at odds over disarmament talks, no voting took place.

Analysts say vote tallying, which began after polls closed at 4 p.m. local time, is a crucial test of the fairness of the vote. Candidates are entitled to send representatives to watch the count before ballots are sealed and sent to township offices. But opposition leaders say they don’t have enough volunteers to monitor the process, since Burma has tens of thousands of polling stations.

A tiny taste of political freedom

While the election campaign had been subdued, candidates were allowed to take to the streets and voice their opposition to the government. For many it was a rare taste of political freedom in a country that typically crushes its opponents, including a monk-led protest movement in September 2007. But Burma remains stony soil for political activism, despite incremental progress.

“The jury is very much still out on whether this election is a meaningful opening of political space,” says Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher on Burma for Amnesty International.

RELATED: How Aung San Suu Kyi's release could shape Burma's political future

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