By Burma Partnership
19 November 2010
"Voters were watched closely while casting votes. It was not free. There will not be change… We were scared and there was nothing we could do".
Burma’s November elections took place in an environment marred by widespread violence and intimidation as the regime sought to exploit the pervasive climate of fear in Burma to ensure complete control over the electoral process. Intimidation and threats were carried out in the lead up to the elections, in order to ensure a lack of a viable political opposition and to guarantee ‘popular support’ for regime-backed parties. These threats proved to be largely successful, and when they were not, the regime often followed up the threats with repercussions. Such election related human rights violations took place across the country, but were noticeably worse in ethnic areas, highlighting the regime’s long-standing policy of ethnic discrimination and persecution. This disregard for ethnic rights has translated in heightened tension between ethnic communities and the central regime, and an associated risk of increased armed conflict in ethnic areas.
Burma Election Tracker has collected over 400 reports of electoral violations, fraud, and election-related human rights violations; approximately half of these reports involve some form of violence and intimidation. The sources include media groups, citizen reports, inside networks and personal interviews.
As a whole, many incidents of intimidation relied upon, and perpetuated the deeply entrenched climate of fear in Burma. The polling booths were designed to diminish voter secrecy, and allow for greater surveillance of voters. A Peace and Diversity Party candidate Aung Myo Oo criticized the polling booth officials’ invasive surveillance of voters:
The polling booth officials … are sitting near the voters while they are voting … So there is no security for them. I think this is deliberate … This is not a secret ballot. This insecurity means the voters are afraid of possibly being watched from behind and have doubts over the privacy of their ballot. It’s not good if the voter feels insecure at a polling station. They might think they will be in trouble unless they vote for the USDP
Aung Myo Oo’s statements were corroborated by citizen reports gathered by Burma Election Tracker. An Arakan voter stated, “I voted for USDP because there were many security officers. Others also did the same,” while another voter in Rangoon said, “There were USDP members 10 yards away form the polling station and as well as in the polling station telling people to vote for them. I voted for USDP as I was afraid of them.” This climate of fear was present during the pre-election and post election period, and significantly affected the ability of voters to truly voice their opinions.
Election related violence and intimidation began early on in the pre-election period. From the very beginning, the regime failed to provide the necessary conditions for a democratic election; it did not allow for basic political freedoms such as freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Instead the regime used brute force and threats to limit political opposition and ensure that the public would follow the regime’s orders out of fear.
Such intimidation often relied on the political clout of the local SPDC authorities. Given the regime’s repressive control over the populace, the people of Burma are fully aware that if necessary, the local authorities would not hesitate in carrying out abusive threats or attacks. As early as June 2010, reports surfaced of a village tract leader in Irrawaddy Division threatening villagers with arrests if they did not lend their support to the USDP.
Moreover, a few days before the 7 November polls, the local USDP secretary in Southern Shan State told residents that if they voted for the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), “Shan State will become a Chinese vassal. I therefore urge those of you who don’t wish to become Chinese slaves to vote for the USDP.” Shan State is an area where the regime has failed to exert full control, and locals have remained resistant towards centralized SPDC regime. SNDP is a significant threat to the regime’s desire to have complete control over the populace; not only did the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) gain the second largest amount of seats during the 1990 elections, but the SNDP has already proved to be a strong contender during the 2010 elections. The USDP secretary’s illogical threat speaks to regime’s desperate need to exert greater control over the people in Shan State.
On the day of elections, the regime and the USDP carried out extensive efforts to ensure voter compliance. One of Burma Election Tracker’s inside networks reported that in Mandalay Division, local SPDC authorities announced over loudspeakers that anyone found to have abstained from voting would be fined 100,000 kyat [$100 USD) and sentenced to 1 year imprisonment. In Kachin State, voters in Pangwa Township were directly threatened at the polling booth, as local SPDC officials stood by the entrance and declared, “You all should vote for the USDP’s Zahkung Ting Ying. We see and know who you are voting for, so be careful.” Witnesses noted that all voters then voted for the USDP candidate. Other incidents of less direct intimidation also took place in Kachin State, as voters reported that police, soldiers and USDP members, all in uniform, monitored the polling station, frightening voters and subsequently, influenced the voters’ decisions. In Tedim township in Chin State, some voters were told that their votes had already been cast on their behalf, and that further, if they still tried to vote, Burma Army soldiers would arrest them.
Some of the worst incidents of violence and intimidation took place in Rohingya areas in Arakan State. The Rohingya, a long persecuted ethnic and religious minority, has suffered extensive abuse at the hands of the regime; this was no different during the elections. In Myint Hlut village, locals were violently forced to vote for the USDP rather than the favored National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD). “We tried to vote for the NDPD on the paper ballots, but they gave our vote to the USDP. Nasaka forces [border security force] entered the area and fired warning shots, before forcing us to mark our ballots for the USDP,” said one resident.
One NDPD candidate was arrested on the day, and local authorities in Buthidaung told villagers that they could change their ballot if they had “mistakenly” voted for NDPD candidates. Voters were warned that the Rohingya community would face increasing violations of their rights if they did not support the USDP. Further, seven NDPD supporters were reportedly beaten up, while more than 38 Rohingyas were arrested in Maungdaw, Arakan State. While the Arakan community has also faced intimidation and violence, observers note that the tactics carried out on the Rohingya population on election day were far more abusive.
After the elections, the regime demonstrated that it had every intention of carrying out threats made prior to elections and on the day of the polls. Initial results reported by Election Commission officials indicated that NDPD candidates had largely won in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships, although preliminary final results have now stated that the USDP dominated the polls in those areas. Nevertheless, it remained that many voters from Buthidaung and Maungdaw had voted for the NDPD; the regime has reacted by carrying out its threats of violence and harassment. Voters report serious threats, with over 100 people detained before and after the elections. Four individuals were even placed in stocks by the village chairman “for refusing to vote [for the] USDP on the election day,” stated a Ngan Chang local.
In another area of Arakan State, villagers had their livelihoods destroyed after they voted for the Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP). Members of SPDC’s irrigation department destroyed an embankment that prevented salt water from seeping into paddy fields, thus destroying nearly 1,000 acres of paddy fields. Officials from the same department, accompanied by USDP officials had previously threatened villagers prior to the elections, indicating that there would be consequences for not voting for the USDP. After authorities discovered that these villagers had failed to comply with the regime’ orders, they sent the irrigation department to destroy the embankment.
There is a fear of a continuation of such attacks. Due to the lack of voter secrecy, and the Election Commission’s involvement in efforts to ensure a USDP victory, few voters who defied orders to support the USDP are free from potential crackdown. In Chin State, after it emerged that the USDP lost in three Chin State townships, the chairman of the Chin SPDC ordered an investigation into the voting patterns amongst local civil servants. Officials indicate that this investigation will be highly invasive, with heads of departments ordered to investigate which staff members had voted, and carry out checks on voter IDs on ballots. Failure to vote for the USDP will have definite consequences: “Demotion at the very least. The USDP's loss in Hakha and Thantlang made him [Hung Ngai] very furious,” one official stated. “It was quite a deafening scolding we had to go through during that meeting.”
Widespread incidents and Ethnic Inequality
Overall, Burma Election Tracker has recorded incidents of violence and intimidation from across the country, in Rangoon, Irrawaddy, Mandalay, Pegu, Sagaing and Tenasserim Divisions, as well as Mon, Chin, Arakan, Shan, Kachin, Karen, and Karenni States. However, although incidents took place in nearly every state and division, ethnic areas by and large experienced greater numbers of incidents of violence and intimidation, which were also significantly more violent and abusive. Particularly in the case of the election-related human rights violations inflicted upon the Rohingya communities, it appears that the regime has made no efforts to reverse its policy of ethnic persecution and discrimination. Rather, it appears that the regime believes it can carry out more frequent and more abusive violations on marginalized ethnic communities with no repercussions.
The contrast between the current official election results and those announced earlier by local Election Commissions indicate that many non regime-backed parties have been manipulated out of their rightful votes. Many political parties have already voiced significant complaints about this discrepancy, including the All Mon Regions Democracy Party, Democracy and Peace Party, National Democratic Front, Shan Nationalities Democracy Party, and more. Particularly in ethnic areas, the Election Commission’s bias has manipulated the process to ensure a lack of genuine ethnic political representation in the future parliament. Many argued that these elections were an opportunity for ethnic political representation, but ethnic candidates have been coercively or forcibly marginalized in the election process, and manipulated out of their parliamentary seats.
Ethnic tension has already escalated in the post election period, with violent skirmishes in Karen, Mon and Shan states. Given that the elections have led ethnic communities to believe that they cannot reach ethnic equality and representation through participation in national political processes, they may very well turn back to armed resistance. A prominent Kachin leader, formerly of the disbanded Kachin State Progressive Party (KSPP), stated, “Without all relevant parties being able to find peaceful solutions, the military showdowns will occur again. Those who suffer most from lack of peace would be the public.”
Lt-Gen Yawd Serk, the leader of the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South), voiced similar statements, noting:
The unfair election might be another reason for the fighting in Myawaddy [Karen State]. This election is not good for everyone, in our point of view, because it wasn’t free, fair or credible. It can’t solve the problems which are still happening in the ethnic areas. The regime just wanted to legitimize itself.
In Karenni state, many locals saw themselves completely marginalized in the election process. Many village headmen were forced to cast advance ballots for the USDP, while locals did not receive voter education or notification about their right to vote. “The elections offer no hope for our people to get their land back and live in freedom like we use to,” said one village headmen who was forced to cast an advance vote. “Until the day we can live in peace again, and Burma has free and fair elections, I will continue to support the Karenni Army to fight for my people.”
Marked by violence and intimidation, the elections have failed to provide a solution to the decades of ethnic persecution and repression that continues to affect the daily lives of ethnic communities. The regime’s repressive and violent election-related activities have already spurred on greater resistance from various ethnic communities. Many fear that Burma may be on the brink of civil war as the election’s legacy of violence, intimidation, and ethnic exclusion lives on.