Myanmar election was 'categorically anti-democratic'

The last time Myanmar's ruling generals permitted a multi-party election they suffered a landslide defeat at the hands of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

The junta promptly nullified the most recent poll 20 years ago and launched a relentless campaign of terror against the winning party and other political opponents. 

Given the generals’ track record few had faith in another regime-sponsored vote such as the one that took place on November 7, in which the main military-backed party claims to have won about 80 per cent of votes. 

Sunday's election followed a questionable constitutional overhaul two years ago - one which the military junta claims was endorsed by 92.4 per cent of eligible voters in a referendum.

The overhaul continued a situation where the generals will be the final deciders on national issues of any significance and endowed them with the constitutional authority to overthrow any popularly elected government.

The constitution also stipulates the commander-in-chief will be above the law, and that the president must have substantial "national security experience", something which only military officers can claim.

Twenty five per cent of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military and any constitutional amendment must have more than 75 per cent of votes, making reform virtually impossible unless, of course, the generals acquiesce. The parliament is required to meet only once a year.

The new election laws required all parties to disown members and leaders locked up on trumped up charges.

So political parties were forced to choose between embracing the regime’s apparently bogus election and abandoning their members behind bars, including dissident leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Shan ethnic leader Khun Htun Oo, and labour and student activists – whose numbers are in the thousands.

The opposition NLD chose to stand with their comrades, refusing to re-register the party under such unacceptably restrictive election laws, rejecting the military constitution and calling for a boycott.

But, to the delight of the regime, a small faction broke away from Suu Kyi’s NLD, establishing a new party, the National Democratic Force (NDF), which ran in barely 15 per cent of 1,100 plus constituencies lending a thin veneer of respectability to the stage-managed poll.

Of the 37 parties registered for the election, the NDF became the largest pro-democracy party.

In sharp contrast, the current regime’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), put up 1,100 candidates. The old military regime’s National Unity Party fielded around 900 candidates, making it statistically impossible for any opposition party to win.

It was not simply that the electoral process was flawed nor was it that the constitution was meant to legitimise the already existing military apartheid.

The conditions under which this process was allowed to unfold were categorically anti-democratic. The regime allowed no freedoms of speech, association, movement or campaigning.

And yet the country’s Asian neighbors, such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a regional bloc, China and India seem to have embraced the generals’ election at face value.

ASEAN General Secretary and former Thai Foreign Minister Mr Surin Pitsuwan, serving as the ASEAN’s chief spokesman, put out the line that flawed elections are better than no election.

Those of this perspective argue the new "structural changes" or "post-election landscape" may in time lead to economic and political reform.

This “Asian-spin” is understandable given the pressure on Myanmar's neighbours to use whatever leverage they have with the generals to push them towards reform.

But, other than in a public relations sense, democracy or human rights matter little to a junta which devotes itself to perpetuating its own survival, building tunnels, buying arms and developing relations with North Korea and Iran.

Economically, the generals are consolidating their social and economic base so that they retain a firm grip on not only political power but also the "free market" economy, privatising assets and apparently transferring them into the hands of their families and supporters.

For their part, western commercial interests, currently excluded from Asia’s ultimate frontier market, are already lobbying their governments to move on from the debate about the legitimacy of this week's elections in Myanmar arguing business engagement could drive political reform.
So it is not only Myanmar's ruling elite that is poised to benefit once its rule is deemed "civilianised", there are Asian and western commercial interests who will potentially profit from the new post-election economic and political landscape. 

Maung Zarni is research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and founder of the Free Burma Coalition

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