As November 8th approaches, news and commentary about the “landmark” Burmese general elections are picking up. As usual, I have my own thoughts about the growing buzz surrounding Election Day.
Let's start off with some quick background information. The upcoming November 8th election in Burma is widely considered to be one of the most important political events in the nation’s history. The authoritarian regime, still warring with several ethnic rebel insurgencies, has for several years now promised reform, increased civilian control, and a transition to democracy. Yet reform has been slow and uneven, with the intentions of the regime constantly questioned both domestically and internationally. The upcoming election is viewed as a critical litmus test that will reveal the true extent of the current regime’s reform agenda. The two central actors are the military-backed ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the renowned pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Dozens of political parties created to represent the nation’s many severely-oppressed ethnic minority groups are also running campaigns.
But if we are using the November 8th election as a litmus test, we need to make sure we’re doing it right. And that means looking at much, much more than simply whether votes are counted fairly on Election Day. It’s critical that we consider the many other factors that may be working against real reform and in favor of entrenched authoritarian interests.
First, Burma has serious disenfranchisement issues. The Rohingya, one of the nation’s most persecuted minority groups, are still fighting for their due citizenship rights (and for their basic survival). They certainly won’t be able to cast ballots in the upcoming election. But it’s not just the Rohingya who will be silenced. There are over 2 million Burmese nationals living abroad (many of them refugees who were forced to flee from war, brutality, and persecution), yet only a few thousand were able to successfully register to vote in the upcoming election, due to overly stringent, complicated procedures (see here). That’s less than 1 percent. The fact that the Rohingya and overseas Burmese, two of the groups that are most opposed to the ruling regime, are unable to vote casts a serious shadow on the legitimacy of the electoral outcome.
Second, who can run in an election is equally as important as who can vote in an election. And here, too, the regime is heavily controlling the process and limiting participation of groups it deems undesirable. Most concerning has been the “wildly disproportionate” disqualification of Muslim candidates (see here), and the outright disqualification of anyone who has participated in an insurgency or rebellion. While outside of the Burmese context, the disqualification of former-rebels might seem like a reasonable, prudent restriction, given that the nation has been embroiled in scores of insurgencies for over 60 years, and that many of these rebels are fighting exactly because of their political exclusion, this disqualification should be reconsidered. Effectively, it means that many prominent leaders with well-established followings are once more excluded from any peaceful political process.
Many people seem to be waiting with bated breath for the 8th to see whether the ruling regime is truly committed to democratic reform. But, to some extent, I think we already have the answers in front of us. The most persecuted groups, and the groups that most threaten the basic legitimacy of the old guard, have already been excluded from participation. We don’t need to wait until November 8th to see that, and we certainly shouldn’t forget it, even if everything does seem to go well when Election Day rolls around.
While the previous points are specific to Burma, the tendency to take elections at face value—did the people with the most votes peacefully take power?—is universal. We need to look more carefully at the circumstances, processes, rules, and power dynamics surrounding Election Day in order to really evaluate political freedom and fairness.
*I am an avid observer of Burmese politics. I worked closely in support of the Kachin Women's Association Thailand, an organization that aids Kachin refugees, for 4 years. I also spent a year working as a research assistant at Dartmouth College conducting research on the Karen National Union and Communist Party of Burma insurgencies.