BURMA ELECTION VI – On the road to Kawmhu

The people of Myanmar are going to the polls to vote in a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog is covering the vote live from Yangon

On the eve of the election, Aung San Suu Kyi made the two-hour drive from Yangon to her constituency home in the Kawmhu township. The route was dusty and humid but village after village came out onto the track to cheer and greet the convoy as it followed the NLD leader to her house.

Awaiting her arrival

The USDP (party with a government majority) cruise through in an eleventh-hour attempt to whip up support. A losing battle in such a fanatically NLD district

Riding in the convoy en route to Aung San Suu Kyi’s township home

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BURMA ELECTION V – Watching and waiting

Tomorrow, on Sunday 1 April, Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog is covering the vote live from Yangon.

Monitors from across the world have descended on the country to observe the voting process. They are in place noting the run-up to tomorrow, how the voting actually goes in practice and checking any irregularities that emerge afterwards.

Speaking to a UN observer about the vote, he reiterated the simple desire, first and foremost, to see a free and fair election. Aung San Suu Kyi is not so sure that this aim can be achieved. But even as recently as yesterday the government’s English-language mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, once again reassured readers that the voting process would not fall down and would be found by the observers to have complied with all the international recommendations.

The monitor admitted that not all the scientific tools used in other electoral missions will be at hand here. He also said that the global observers had been in a bit of rush to organise the monitoring as the government in Naypyidaw only published the guest-list last week.

The observers will try to make it to all the townships where votes are taking place, for although there are several constituencies in Yangon, the voting will reach across the country, up to Mandalay and down to the Irrawaddy delta area. The UN, EU, US and ASEAN will not accept electoral fraud from any angle and the National League for Democracy and other opposition parties, such as the Democratic Party and the National Democratic Force, have to ensure they play by the rules as well.

BURMA ELECTION III – From tiny acorns

On 1 April Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog will cover it live from Yangon. This is the third preview post on the crucial vote. (For the first build-up article, click here, and for the second, click here

There are many ways to rig an election. Falsified ballots, stuffed boxes, lost votes, added votes, removing opponents…the blacklist is long and Burma has experienced most of the tricks in the past. In 1990, the people of Myanmar overwhelmingly voted for the opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Sadly for the voters, this was not exactly the result that the government had expected. And so the officials declared the election null and void, slotted themselves into the Amyotha Hluttaw, the upper house and the Pytithu Hluttaw, the lower house, and put Suu Kyi under house arrest for twenty years.

Millions of people believe that this time will be different. This is not 1990 again – that was a general election and this is a vote for just 45 parliamentary seats – but a democratic oak could spring from this by-election acorn.

There are three major reasons why there is a more optimistic aroma in the air this time round. Firstly, the democratic activists have been allowed to campaign at a level of freedom not previously experienced. Aung San Suu Kyi has been leading the charge and drawing large sympathetic crowds. Despite this she has been taken ill with exhaustion and is, at the moment, having a few days off to recover before the big push at the end of the week. Secondly, the government seems to have changed for the better. The military still has around 160 reserved seats in both houses of parliament but this is now a country where the civilians are starting to wield the power. Finally, there has been welcome international engagement with the vote.

The government has done the right thing by agreeing to have the vote monitored. There is a long list of outsiders making their way to Burma at the moment with sharpened pencils and clipboards. The presence of the EU and US should not be dismissed but it is more important that observers from the regional bloc attend. Myanmar is in line to assume the chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014 and the support and advice from its neighbours is of greatest use at the moment.

Where the officials from Washington and Brussels come in is that they have still got punitive sanctions slapped on Naypyidaw. They will be anxious for the Burmese to run a smooth vote that can be lauded loudly so that they can get rid of some of the restrictions. But most of all, and most significantly, there is agreement amongst journalists that the Burmese must monitor themselves. The public must be able to feel that they can walk proudly to the ballot boxes. The government must keep order and must respect the result.

President Thein Sein has recently come back from an official trip to Vietnam, a long-time investor in Myanmar. His country is opening up and reforming itself and will be looking for foreign investors to help re-build its economy and re-establish its place in the region and world. But there is a by-election to hold first and nothing will be certain until that passes positively and the parliament has democratic voices resounding inside.

This blog will cover the by-election live from Burma on 1 April

BURMA ELECTION II – A step on the bridge

On 1 April Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog will cover it live from Yangon. This is the second preview post on the crucial vote. (For the first build-up article, click here

The EU, amongst many other world observers, has its eyes peeled. As we saw earlier in the year, the US and the UK both sent their foreign secretaries to laud the reforms process and signal a probable end to the long-running sanctions and the long-standing isolation of the beautiful South East Asia nation. The European Union has already eased travel bans and pumped in a new €150m health and education development package. The bloc is ready to roll back some more restrictions provided the 1 April by-election is “free and fair”.

However, the EU would also like to see all ceasefires in the country upheld and peace deals signed if there has, as yet, been no end to violence. The current situation report is not perfect. On Monday 12 March, officials admitted that a fresh round of talks between the government and rebels in Kachin state to try to reach a peace agreement had failed. The Kachin Independence Organisation leader said:

“The reason we couldn’t sign an agreement was because mutual trust still needs to be built up and has not reached a solid level yet but we hope we will have a peace deal one day.”

In response, the government chief negotiator said:

“We are determined to have eternal peace with all ethnic groups.”

The government has clashed repeatedly with many rebels for many decades but has managed to sign ceasefires with the Karen, Shan, Chin and Mon groups recently, all of whom would like some form of devolution. Outsiders will remain nervous if the unrest in the north of the country is not resolved.

China is one of the world observers that is not in as wild a celebratory mood as Western nations. It has called for work to restart on a dam in the north of the country. Construction is well underway but the government in Naypyidaw ordered a postponement recently due to complaints from local and environmental pressure groups. They argue that the lake that would be formed would cause people in five villages to relocate and that 90% of the electricity produced by the project would skip out needy villagers and whizz straight over the border to China for consumption there.

So do you stop the dam, save the villages and anger a rich next-door neighbour or do you leave them with dodgy utilities, ship the power to China but land yourself a multi-million dollar cheque at the same time? This is part of the complicated and difficult reforms the country has embarked upon. Foreign businesses will be looking to invest in a more open and democratic Myanmar if the political situation stabilises. The country is rich in oil, gas and timber and is at the Indo-China geo-political crossroads.

If the by-election is indeed ‘free and fair’ then the process will continue and outsiders will be pleased. But the internal wrangling will not be solved on 1 April. Burma is a nation of 60m people, speaking many different languages and of different ethnicities. It has been through colonialism, the isolation imposed by the military junta and is gently breaking free from the ties. These changes must not be rushed, but they must be not be halted. The 1 April by-election is crucial, but it will be a stepping-stone on the bridge, not an end in itself.

This blog will cover the by-election live from Burma on 1 April

Border-crossing

The US Secretary of Homeland Security hints at a Bin Laden-style killing of leading Mexican mobster

Janet Napolitano recently completed a short tour of five Central American countries. She kicked off in Mexico, where she and the Mexican Interior Minister, Alejandro Poiré, signed security agreements and, it seems, had some heart-to-hearts about the continued search for Forbes Rich-Listed Joaquín ‘Shorty’ Guzmán. In the press conference that followed the meetings Napolitano admitted:

“Well, let me just say it took us 10 years to find Osama Bin Laden and we found him and you know what happened there. I’m not suggesting the same thing would happen with Guzmán, but I am suggesting that we are persistent when it comes to wrongdoers and those who do harm in both of our countries. So that issue continues.”

Joaquín Guzmán is certainly the prize target. He is the leader of the Sinaloa organisation. He was jailed in 1993 but has been on the run since escaping in 2001 in a laundry basket. Sightings have been made every now and again of ‘Shorty’ in and around his gang’s state capital, Culiacán. His latest wedding to an 18-year-old bride was well attended. But he is an elusive character and the photograph the press use to illustrate their stories is a grainy picture taken nearly 20 years ago when he was still behind bars.

The Mexican government’s wanted list of mobsters has been growing gradually smaller but killing or capturing Guzmán would be a major coup for the president. After lower house losses in 2009 Felipe Calderón is a lame duck at present and his National Action Party (PAN) seems set to be kicked out of the presidency and the Senate in July’s elections. It would be a boost for the PAN candidate for the top job, Josefina Vázquez Mota, if the wealthy gangster were taken off the beat.

His gang is arguably the most ‘successful’ of the major groups and forms the most important part of the ‘old’ foundation alliance with the Gulf organisation and the Knights Templar. Taking out its mysterious leader would also help stop the comments from across the country that the government has been favouring the Sinaloa gang by cracking down harder on its rivals, the ‘new’ foundation of Los Zetas, La Familia and organisations from Juarez and Tijuana. Analysts of the violence believe that the Sinaloa criminals may have finally wrested control of the border city of Ciudad Juarez from the local gangs; critics of the government say that this was achieved with an ‘understanding’ from the security forces. The president has categorically denied any such plots.

The US has already been given permission from Mexico City to fly unmanned drones over the Sinaloa mountains and Chihuahua deserts of its neighbour to see what it can see. Will the next step be boots on the ground? The American government would want to avoid the kind of backlash seen in Pakistan after the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden there. The Mexican constitution outlaws foreign intervention on its soil. But, as we saw in that villa near the Afghan border in May last year, sometimes the small issue of national sovereignty can be gently pushed aside when its comes to the elimination of the Washington’s ‘high value targets’.