As Burma’s first election in twenty years approached, the streets of Rangoon and other cities were awash with images of a golden lion. This was the insignia of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), an entity spawned out of a military proxy ‘civilian association’ called the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA). Following its 21 October introduction, the streets also began to be lined with the country’s new red, green and gold flag; the old red flags, which the junta had decried for their association with Burma’s previous socialist government, were duly burned. By the time voting day rolled around, the new flag was seen on every polling booth, even as many of the booths themselves lay empty for much of the appointed day. Instead, squadrons of policemen were seen hiding behind rusting barbed-wire barriers bearing equally aged guns.
In the office of the NDF – really just a small suburban flat – there is a small picture of a graffiti by the guerrilla artist Banksy. It depicts a forlorn chimp wearing a sandwich board saying, Laugh now, but someday we will be in power. In the hours after the polls closed, that sentiment was oddly palpable; indeed, hope was in the air. NDF Chairman Than Nyein told this writer confidently that turnout had been high – 60 percent by three in the afternoon, dubbing the NLD’s boycott of the polls a ‘useless effort’. For the NDF, a high turnout was assumed positive due to its linkages to the NLD; there is a tacit understanding that, as took place during the 1990 election, people would again vote to be rid of the military. ‘There is a lot of hatred for the USDP,’ said U Khin Maung Swe, the NDP leader. ‘But we trust our people – they know who is who in the political arena.’In the event, the USDP was duly awarded some 80 percent of the vote. Of course, everyone knew that the elections would be rigged to a certain extent. As one leader of the opposition National Democratic Force (NDF), U Khin Maung Swe, said prior to the elections, ‘From the very beginning we felt that the election laws were not fair.’ Aside from the fact that junta officials had barred all foreign observers and journalists from monitoring the proceedings, the 2008 Constitution, ratified in the immediate aftermath of the devastation of Cyclone Nargis, guaranteed that 25 percent of parliamentary seats would be reserved for military appointees. As a result, a debate raged for months among most voters and parties as to whether to take part in the polls in the first place. This caused a split in the largest civilian political grouping, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi that won the 1990 elections hands down but was kept from forming the government. The NDF was one of the new splinter groups that decided to go ahead with putting candidates up for election.
By the time the results emerged two days later, however, it was clear that the chimp’s promise remained as distant as ever. It became clear that fraud had taken place on a vast scale, with thousands of ‘advance votes’ in seemingly every constituency that democratic parties had contested. Further, as one diplomat put it, the polls had been ‘tragic’ for those parties who had taken part, with friends were divided and reputations destroyed.
Complaints had started to mount prior to the elections. Days earlier, Nay Ba Swe, from the Democratic Party of Myanmar (DPM), another NLD splinter group, told this writer that advance balloting – ‘or signing the ballot papers early’ – had been happening all over the country. ‘All the civil servants, including the military men and police, have been forced to do so; if they don’t, they’re afraid they will lose their jobs,’ she said from her Rangoon home. ‘Even factory owners and businessmen have to give [the government-backed party] their votes or they will lose their licences. In the rural areas it’s the worst – people are simple and are so scared. Even farmers are forced to sign away their vote in advance.’
A local journalist noted that even the names of some people who had passed away were included on the voting register. ‘The USDP will be the first party to be voted in by ghosts,’ he said. ‘They will be the party of the dead.’
Remember the opposition
Still, in some places this advance voting did not have the desired effect. One of the 16 seats won by the NDF was a victory for Tin Nway Oo, from Rangoon’s North Dagon township. Days after the polling, despite wearing a smile of relief in contrast to most of her colleagues, she said she was still not satisfied with the results. She said over 7500 constituents had been mysteriously dropped from the voter register, which had been unveiled only the week before the vote. Monitoring had also been a significant problem for opposition parties. In her own race, she did not have the personnel needed to monitor all 53 polling stations in North Dagon, and she and her supporters had been denied entrance to some polling stations.
Nway Oo experienced a similar monitoring problem during the subsequent vote-counting, which lasted most of two days. She raced around the township with her colleagues trying to scrutinise the counting process in the stations, but many were inevitably left unattended. She estimated that the USDP received over 2000 advance votes in her constituency alone, but in her case these were not enough to subvert the popular vote. While confirming that the election was ‘not fair’, Nway Oo promised that, having now been elected, the public ‘will remember me – I will be the loudest voice in Parliament!’
There appear to be few options open to the majority of opposition parties. One Western diplomat notes that opposition parties could face jail time if their members lodge complaints and lose a subsequent court case – assuming that they could find the money to lodge such a complaint in the first place. Complaints would have to be made regarding specific seats, rather than brought as a whole. In the case of the NDF, the party fielded 163 candidates and won less than 10 percent of these, despite believing on polling day to be leading in many places – until the advance votes were counted. As each complaint submission would cost around USD 1000, going forward with a full challenge would offer the daunting possibility of coming up with USD 100,000, while the highly fraught complaint process could take some three to four years to resolve. Nonetheless, as Himal goes to press, the Democratic Party of Myanmar and the NDF have agreed to cooperate on the complaints process, though a joint strategy is yet to be unveiled.
The matter of money and finance is one that all democratic forces in Burma complain about. In the three levels of Parliament there were over a thousand seats up for grabs, yet most parties were able to contest only a fraction of these. As Maung Swe, the NDF leader, told this writer, ‘We are a poor party, and could not afford the USD 500 to field a candidate in most constituencies.’ In certain places, this led to seats being contested solely by military-backed parties, or even just by USDP. As a result, there is a deep cynicism among the Burmese public. ‘This is not my election,’ said one cab driver, ‘it is the military’s.’ He said he would not even consider voting, a sentiment echoed by many throughout the country in the run-up to the polls.
This cynicism set in years ago. The country has been under military rule since 1962, and by today few can remember life as it existed outside of the junta’s iron fist. There are some who fear that this fatalism might have become fused with the dominant religion, Theravada Buddhism. Perhaps, goes the theory, people have already written off this life, and instead have started to look forward to the next. As senior Rangoon-based economist U Myint, former head of the Rangoon Institute of Economics, notes, this premise is also reflected in statistics. Charity and ceremonials today constitute the third-largest non-food expenditure for the average Burmese household, a figure that has steadily risen over the years. ‘It could be that the family is performing more meritorious deeds because its members have become more interested in the next life than in the present one,’ U Myint suggested. Or, as the newly released Suu Kyi put it to a crowd in Rangoon on 14 November, ‘We Burmese tend to believe in fate. But if we want change, we have to do it ourselves.’
Prior to the polls, there was some scattered anticipation in Burma that what was about to take place could indeed prove to be an historic occasion. As Ba Swe put it, ‘The door is ajar; we must slip through it somehow.’ Yet this was not a widely held perception; if anything, it appears to have been mostly confined to the educated elite and spurred on by foreign influence. The average person, it seems, long ago abandoned hope in the political process. For the most part, they have been simply trying to keep their head down and out of the political winds, focusing instead on the same concerns as always: price hikes, inflation and lack of jobs, food, education and health care.
If anything, ideal Burmese elections would probably have revolved to a great extent around the dismal state of the economy. Unfortunately, as the military-backed government remains largely unchanged in the halls of power in Naypyidaw and Rangoon, so too will continue what has by now become decades’ worth of economic mismanagement. The NDF’s vice-chair in upper Burma, U Tin Aung Aung, highlighted this point in Mandalay just before the elections took place. It is because of the export of valuable raw materials, primarily natural gas, that the junta has been able to survive without the democratic mandate, he says. Exports of some USD 2.5 billion annually are likely to soar further in coming years, and Aung Aung suggests that the only way that the November 2010 elections could have made a difference to the people of Burma is if a significant portion of that revenue gets used for the good of the people.
Anger related to livelihood remains the single most important populist motivating factor in Burma today – the last two major insurrections, in 1988 and 2007, started because of economic woes. Against this backdrop, Suu Kyi’s release after seven years of house arrest has embodied the change on which the Burmese people will now hang their hopes – not a staged Parliament.
~ Joseph Allchin is a journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exile Burmese news network.