History & Current Events
2010 Elections: 'Free and Fair'
_ Burma held its first elections in 20 years on 7 November 2010, but the glimmer of hope for democratic change after two decades of military rule was short-lived. The regime-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had distinct advantages from the start, and opposition parties faced discriminatory laws and targeted oppression throughout the course of the campaign.
_ Regime Interference & Fraud
From the preparatory stages to the vote tallying, the military regime kept a tight grasp on the electoral process. In violation of international norms for free and fair elections, the junta appointed an 18-member Election Commission with direct ties to the regime. The commission announced the date for the election on 13 August, creating a window of less than 20 days for parties to register their candidates before finalising the roster on 30 August. A registration fee of £300 per candidate functioned as a significant deterrent for smaller parties, and parties who failed to submit a minimum of 3 candidates were disqualified. The USDP led a robust campaign generously supported by state capital, placing self-funded opposition parties at a further disadvantage in the lead-up to the election.
Throughout the process, the regime refused to allow the United Nations and other international bodies to monitor the election. Foreign and local media were prohibited from covering election-related content. As the election neared, the Commission cancelled voting in over 3,400 villages in Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan States, claiming that the environment in these regions was not conducive to free and fair electoral procedure. Voter turnout on election day was estimated to be as low as 30% in some areas of the country. Some voters expressed fear of retaliation if they voted for the opposition. British ambassador Andrew Heyn reported "firsthand accounts of people who have been warned by local officials that if they don't vote for the USDP there will be trouble for them and their families” (Davies). In other cases, USDP candidates sought to ‘buy’ votes from certain constituencies through incentives, such as electricity for residents of the Tanintharyi Region and National Identity Cards for Rohingya in Arakan State.
Strategic Electoral Laws
In the lead-up to the 2010 elections, on 8 March, the regime announced new electoral laws that effectively crippled the opposition. Under the new State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Political Parties Registration Law, any person serving a prison sentence in fulfilment of a court conviction was excluded from creating or joining a political party, voting or running as an electoral candidate. In a regime known for imprisoning dissidents, this regulation imposed serious constraints on the opposition. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose landslide victory in the 1990 election was ignored by the regime, was disqualified from the race due to these new regulations. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), did not expel her from membership and was thus not permitted to re-register. The NLD was dissolved on 14 September and finished the campaign encouraging supporters to boycott the elections. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), which won the second most seats in Parliament during the 1990 election, was likewise disbanded.
Allegations of bribery, coercion, intimidation and ballot tampering cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of the election itself. Misuse of advance voting mechanisms was a significant concern. Though the regime de-emphasized the number and significance of these votes, “there were around 6 million advance ballots, representing some 10 per cent of all votes cast” (ICG). These votes overwhelmingly favoured the USDP. Official voter lists included names of underage voters and people who had been dead for years, but excluded those deemed unlikely to vote for USDP despite the lack of any formal charges against them. Voting stations were strategically located and not accessible to voters from all areas, and poorly supervised voting booths facilitated fraudulent and repetitive ballot-casting.
The 2008 Constitution reserves 25% of seats in both houses of Parliament to the military, thus ensuring a continued presence of regime officials in any new government. In addition, the USDP employed state resources to fund over 1,100 candidates, whereas the National Democratic Force (NDF), the strongest opposition party in the race, fielded just over 100 candidates. By no surprise, the USDP won 76.5% of seats in the final election, and the NDF finished sixth with a mere 1.4% of seats.
•Alternative Asean Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), ‘The 2010 Generals’ Election’, Burma Issues and Concerns Vol. 6, January 2011.
•Burma Fund UN Office (UN), ‘Burma’s 2010 Elections: A Comprehensive Report’, 31 January 2011.
•Burma News International (BNI), ‘Hobson’s Choice: Burma’s 2010 Elections’, February 2011.
•Davies, Jack and Matthew Weaver, ‘Burma election turnout remains low: Officials outnumber
voters at some polling stations as Burmese opposition leaders call for boycott of first elections in 20 years’, The Guardian, 7 November 2010.
•International Crisis Group (ICG), ‘Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape’, Asia Briefing No. 118,
Jakarta/Brussels, 7 March 2011.