The General’s Election

By Siri Bjorntvetd

Burma’s military junta held its first elections in over two decades on Sunday 7 of November, and, by its count, won about 80 percent of the vote. The main opposition party in Burma boycotted the election.

The poll was fraught by accusations of fraud and irregularities, but the junta claims the election represents Burma’s first step away from military rule.

Western governments have condemned the election as neither free nor fair, and the junta used new electoral laws, intimidation and imprisonment to ensure that they remain in control of the country.

The junta has been in control of the country since Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 80 percent of the parliamentary seats in Burma’s last free election in 1990.

The NLD’s landslide victory took the military junta by surprise and they nullified the results and reasserted their tyrannical rule, which ensured that Burma, once one of the wealthiest countries in southeast Asia, eventually became one of the most impoverished in the region. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner was released a week after the election, having been detained for fifteen years.

In this election the junta used new electoral laws which guaranteed them a quarter of the seats in the parliament even before the election, and the new constitution banned Suu Kyi, along with many other key pro-democracy figures from participating in the election. The NLD is faced with an uncertain future as they decided to boycott the election and the new election laws stipulate that parties that do not take part in the elections have to be disbanded.

The two main parties that contested the election are both closely linked to the military junta. The Union Solidarity and Development Party is led by former junta members who have recently retired, and the National Unity Party is led by an ex-deputy leader of the military. In addition the structural design of the government ensured that the interior minister, the defence minister and the minister responsible for border affairs must be held by serving generals.

The junta has also detained and imprisoned opponents, closed their offices and harassed members’ relatives. According to a Human Rights Watch report from 2009 there are over 2100 political prisoners in Burma, and over the years millions of Burmese people have fled the country.

The regime continues to use forced labour, and the junta has been accused of committing serious human rights abuses. Most notably, 3000 people were killed when the military suppressed the student-led protest in 1988.
More recently the regime suppressed demonstrations led by students and monks in the autumn of 2007, in an operation which killed at least 31 unarmed civilians.

The junta also actively sought to prevent both international and domestic relief efforts when cyclone Nargis ravaged the country two years ago, killing 150,000. The regime arrested volunteers trying to deliver aid to victims of the cyclone.

Despite the magnitude and the devastation of the cyclone the junta pushed through with a referendum on the constitution the very same month, in which according to the junta 99 percent of the eligible voters turned out, and 92.4 percent voted in favour of the new constitution.

The military junta will remain in power in Burma using retired generals or civilians closely linked to the junta to give the regime a more civilian look.

Many saw the election as Burma’s most significant day in two decades. When Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, thousands of people greeted her outside her home in Rangoon. It is unclear, however, whether her release signals any real change in Burma.