By Burma Partnership
20 December 2010
"In my region, many people were not interested in the elections, and didn't know anything about the elections. There was no electoral education and people who knew about elections were afraid of getting into trouble. I don't think the elections will bring any betterment to people. I see the elections are designed for the military regime."
During the elections, the regime took extensive measures to limit election participation at all levels; from restricting political party participation to blocking free flow of information on the elections, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) ensured that they would be able to dominate and control the process from beginning to end. Ethnic parties and ethnic voters were particularly marginalized and suppressed as the Election Commission rejected leading ethnic parties and candidates, security forces hassled ethnic parties, and ethnic voters received little to no electoral education. By limiting such participation, the regime effectively stifled opposition from political parties and the electorate on the day of the polls.
Election campaigns took place in an extremely restrictive political environment, due to the Union Election Commission’s campaign restrictions, which breached international standards for free and fair elections. Political parties were banned from using flags, shouting slogans or even criticizing the Constitution. These restrictions were blatantly constructed to target opposition parties, with regime-backed parties immune from such limitations.
Furthermore, throughout the campaign period, regime-backed parties enjoyed particular advantages over other political parties. While regime-backed parties such as the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) were able to campaign well before the official campaign period, other parties such as the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) have faced heavy restrictions from the election commission and authorities.
In October, the regime interfered in All Mon Region Democracy Party (AMRDP) campaigns in Mudon Township, Mon State. Local SPDC officials summoned AMRDP party members and ordered them to cease their activities. An AMRDP organizer criticized the regime’s interference:
“In the villages, the ban for the party’s campaign came through from the Village Peace and Development Council (VPDC) staff. It has lead to harassment of our party. Now we have campaign in the houses of those who are close with us very quietly. The USDP party can campaign freely in the village, the village headmen don’t say anything. Also in some village they [the USDP] campaign in the VPDC office.”
Weeks later, a villager in Ye Township, Mon State, was beaten by local SPDC officials and members of a people’s militia for his involvement in AMRDP’s campaigns. He was then hospitalized due to injuries sustained in the attack.
Meanwhile, National Democratic Force (NDF) members in Kachin State experienced disruptions to their campaigns as USDP members reportedly destroyed and removed NDF signboards. U Ma Hka, the NDF candidate in Myitkyina, further faced intimidation, harassment and restrictions from authorities, while USDP candidates were given free reign to forcibly solicit advance votes from the public, including the elderly and local miners.
Such campaign restrictions did not cease as the elections drew closer. Days before the elections, the regime particularly targeted independent candidates, as they harassed and intimidated the candidates and their supporters. Authorities targeted independent candidate Saw Aung, who recounted the experience:
“Two police trucks blocked the road. USDP members, the fire brigade and ward authorities were waiting with the police. They wanted to arrest us for meeting too late at night and threatened my supporters, saying they would force any Red Cross members [a junta-backed social organization] to resign.”
Some candidates were indeed arrested during the elections; one National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD) candidate Khin Maung Myint was arrested on election day as he criticized USDP vote rigging at the polling station.
Other candidates were restricted from the very beginning as the Union Election Commission unjustly rejected various candidates, such as members of the former Kachin State Progressive Party (KSPP), who had applied to run as individual candidates after having been rejected as a political party. In rejecting the KSPP candidates, the regime ensured that the only ethnic Kachin party in the elections would be the regime-backed Unity Democracy Party of Kachin State (UDPKS).
Limited Access to Information
In the lead up to the elections, there was a severe lack of voter education. Voter education is a crucial element of democratic elections in order to ensure that voters understand their role, responsibility and rights as voters, and is typically the responsibility of the election authority – the Union Election Commission. Moreover, voters must be informed as to when, where and how to vote in order to ensure that they are able to cast ballots that represent their beliefs on election day.
Noticeably, the SPDC’s election laws completely failed to include any mention of voter education, or any form of electoral education. This omission was certainly reflected in the degree of voter awareness amongst the general population, especially in ethnic communities.
Burma Election Tracker conducted approximately 200 personal interviews with citizens inside Burma, 50 of which complained about a critical lack of voter education – a flaw that guaranteed that either the interviewee and/or their communities were unable to understand the meaning of an election, how to vote, which parties were contesting in the elections, what each party represented, or even that elections were being held at all. Based on media reports, observations of poll monitors and discussions with local organizations, such reports of inadequate voter education are certainly representative of a wider problem that occurred throughout the country.
The following accounts speak to the lack of voter education:
"I do not have any knowledge on the election, they required to me to vote, so I did it."
"We were provided transportation by cars to go to the polling station. I voted although I did not want to. I just followed others and voted. I think my vote will be discounted as I mixed up my voting. I don't see change."
"There were three elderly people who voted before me. They did not know how to vote and polling station officials showed them where to tick and helped them tick on the slips by holding their hands. One elderly woman told the official that she wanted to vote for NUP but the official helped her tick on the lion (USDP). When I asked the three elderly women, they said that they had to tick next to the lion logo (USDP)."
Some were not even told about the elections at all. Particularly amongst various ethnic communities, the Election Commission failed to provide any voter education in ethnic languages, thus marginalizing large parts of the ethnic population.
Mizzima News interviewed some ethnic women in Shan State on 4 November; when asked about the elections, one woman replied “We didn’t know anything about this yet.” Later the journalist discovered that local ethnic villagers were given party leaflets in Burmese, which the villagers could not read. Further, their village leader failed to explain the elections to the people.
Lack of consideration of the linguistic needs of local communities occurred throughout the country. A significant proportion of the Muslim community in Maungdaw and Buthidaung Townships, Arakan State, did not understand how to vote as voter information and ballots were written in Burmese. One National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD) member who observed polling stations in Maungdaw Township reported:
“Most of the people in the area, especially Muslims, do not understand how to vote because they are unable to read the Burmese language, and have been asking what to do with their ballots. But no one has the right here to explain or talk to them, and they are allowed just three minutes at the polling booth to cast their votes. We are afraid that most of the votes will be discarded as disqualified votes.”
According to a local UNICEF official, approximately 90% of the Muslim population in Maungdaw and Buthidaung cannot read or write Burmese. This resulted in a complete lack of voter education, with many villagers without knowledge of where to vote or how to vote.
Further limiting the spread of information were the cuts to phone lines, state censorship, arrests of local and foreign journalists, and rampant misinformation. All these elements together placed significant limitations on voter participation; without full understanding of the election issues, the political parties, and their voter rights and responsibilities, many were prevented from properly exercising their rights as voters and citizens of Burma.
By forcibly preventing the formation of a functioning opposition or an educated public, the authorities’ actions undermined the very democratic principles at the root of multiparty elections. Indeed, the regime’s manipulations ensured that Burma’s first elections in 20 years failed to be an opportunity for the people of Burma to determine the future of their country based on sound knowledge of different political parties, understanding of their rights, ability to decide whether or not to vote, and opportunity to support parties that truly represented their interests rather than the interests of the military elite.