The people of Burma — or some of them — went to the polls on Saturday in what was that country’s first election process in 20 years. But given that this process was so restricted and stage-managed and the substance of the result was known as early as three days before the event, even the terms “poll” and “election” have to be used in a heavily qualified sense.
It was, in reality, just the Burmese junta’s mechanism for shifting away from an overt military dictatorship to a slightly more covert form — dictatorship without so many uniforms.
As with the transition from the State Law and Order Council to the “State Peace and Development Council” in 1988, the establishment of the government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is a front for maintaining the status quo. The only change has been that several senior officers have formally resigned their positions to assume a civilian role in the new party and hence the government.
“Pre-polling votes” showed the USDP, along with the 20% of seats reserved for the military, maintaining an absolute majority between them. So, even if those people who did vote on polling day uniformly chose a non-government party they could not change the government.
But then, with the expectation that there would be widespread vote rigging on the back of mass avoidance of the polls, the only question was expected to be the extent of how overwhelming the pro-government result would be.
Following the experience of 1990 in which the Burmese people were given an opportunity to genuinely vote and overwhelmingly rejected the military government, this process was never expected to allow anything that genuinely resembled democracy. When Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy stormed the vote in 1990, the generals simply refused to acknowledge the outcome, imprisoned Suu Kyi and cracked down on dissent, which they have been doing ever since.
For this “election”, Suu Kyi was arbitrarily banned, the NLD could not again challenge, parties needed to register with the government and have their policies pre-approved, no meeting of more than five people was allowed without government permission and independent observers and journalists were barred from covering the process.
In several ethnic minority areas, the process was cancelled following a return to separatist fighting. The numerous ceasefires the Burmese junta had arranged with separatist groups began to fall apart in the middle of the year when it demanded they give up their weapons. This also played into the hands of the junta.
Unsurprisingly, the international community has only varied in tone its condemnation of this political farce. Even the ASEAN group of countries, many of which have less than unblemished records, is embarrassed by its continued association with a country that for almost five decades has consistently had, or close to, the world’s worst human-rights record.
The pariah qualities of Burma extend to it still being the world’s second largest producer of opium and heroin and a major international supplier of amphetamines, the income from which underpins the country’s otherwise meagre and dysfunctional economy. Along with Somalia, Burma is also ranked by Transparency International as the world’s most corrupt country. It is difficult to think of a worse place in the world, a situation completely unleavened by the junta rebranding itself.
In theory, elections are generally intended to produce some form of accountable government. But in Burma, there is not likely to be any amelioration of its state criminality any time in the foreseeable future.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is with the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University.