Two days to go before the vote and National League for Democracy supporters are happy, excited and dancing in the street in central Yangon
On 1 April Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seats. This 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
On 1 April Burma will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seats. This blog will cover it live from Yangon
If you had to name someone from Myanmar right now, the chances are that the name Aung San Suu Kyi will be on the tip of your tongue. She is deservedly held up as the epitome of democracy campaigners. She has shown how the human spirit can endure hardship (in her case illicit imprisonment). And she has been a successful woman amongst the male mists of a reclusive nation. She is a beacon for Burmese democracy and, crucially, she is not alone. There are other beacons being lit by other determined, multi-party-minded activists.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is the most well-known of the Burmese opposition parties. She has certainly been campaigning hard as the 1 April by-election comes ever nearer and international broadcasters have been picking up her flag-waving and hand-shaking. It seems to outsiders looking in that she and her followers will sweep to victory in the very few seats (48 out of 664) seats that are being contested this spring.
Much has been made of the fact that this is the first time that Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD are running in a general election since they won the vote held in 1990. Her reward for the poll success then was the devastating house arrest from which she was only freed in 2010. This time excitement is brewing that her reward will be a true place in the Amyotha Hluttaw (lower house).
But the NLD are not the only opposition party looking to win seats in parliament. The National Democratic Force broke off from the NLD in order to compete in the last polls, in November 2010, which the NLD boycotted. The NDF currently has four MPs in the lower house and will be looking to build on this representation. There has been rivalry as well as friendship between the NLD and the NDF but it seems that the less well-known party is determined to achieve electoral success without the force of Suu Kyi on side.
Burma has many different ethnic nationalities, from the Mon of the eastern delta to the Shan of the central east and the Kachin of the far north in the hills on the border with China. Many of these groups have also formed political parties under the democratic banner and are running for power as well.
The ongoing process of reforms seems to be following Cuba’s Castro timescale (‘without rushing but without stopping’) and so far the US and the UK have seen enough to have flown in Hillary Clinton and William Hague to support the changes. The US has re-opened ambassadorial ties and the EU is discussing an easing of sanctions.
The path to democracy is now being trodden by the Burmese, with Aung San Suu Kyi at the head of the line. But it is important not to forget the other campaigners from different parties also dreaming of a better future and their efforts must be recognised as well. A strong democratic opposition to the military’s grip on parliament can only be built through a wide coalition of ethnicities and political leanings. Suu Kyi’s charisma is welcome and something that cannot be ignored by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. But there are other democrats, and their voices must be heard too.
This blog will cover the by-election live from Burma on 1 April