Burma’s Upcoming Election Will ‘Lack Legitimacy,’ U.S. Says

By Patrick Goodenough | October 8, 2010 | 5:40 AM EDT

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, photographed with supporters in Yangon in 2002. She has spent most of the last 20 years in detention. (AP Photo/David Longstreath, File)

(CNSNews.com) - As Burma readies for its first multi-party election in 20 years, critics are repeating what they said about the 1990 election -- that a flawed process aims to perpetuate the military’s grip on power under the cover of a move towards civilian rule.

A year after the Obama administration announced a new policy of engagement with the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) junta, the shift has produced few results, and the State Department has declared in advance that the Nov. 7 election will “lack legitimacy.”

Compounding the concerns about the direction Burma is taking are suspicions that the SPDC is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, possibly with North Korean help.

China’s role also is causing concern. A natural gas pipeline being built to China aims to earn the junta billions of dollars once online in 2013, and experts warn that the window for effective sanctions against the SPDC is closing rapidly. China opposes sanctions and in 2007 joined Russia in vetoing a U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution critical of Burma.

With the election one month away, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley gave a flat “no” when asked Wednesday whether there were any signs that the poll may be free and fair.

A fuller response came earlier from deputy spokesman Mark Toner, who said “we don’t believe those elections can be free or fair, and we continue to urge the Burmese authorities to begin a genuine political dialogue with the democratic opposition as a first step, and also the ethnic minority leaders, as a first step towards national reconciliation.”

Key criticisms of the process include a provision in a controversial new constitution drafted by the SPDC in 2008 that sets aside 25 percent of seats in parliament and regional assemblies for military representatives.

Another was a set of elections regulations promulgated last March that appeared designed to weaken the challenge posed by the veteran opposition group, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

One regulation stated that no-one with a criminal conviction would be allowed to participate in party politics, a requirement that disqualified Suu Kyi. The 65 year-old opposition leader has spent three-quarters of the last 20 years in detention, with her current house arrest sentence due to expire shortly after the election date.

Another regulation required parties to meet specific registration conditions or face automatic shutdown.

The NLD chose to boycott the election, and the junta formally abolished it in May for failing to register. Suu Kyi on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in a bid to reverse her party’s dissolution.

The NLD’s removal from the contest leaves it dominated by pro-regime parties widely seen as proxies for the military, including the National Union Party (NUP) and the Union Solidarity and Development Party. (A party comprising former NLD members who broke away over the boycott decision is also competing.)

‘Civilian in form, military in reality’

The last time Burma went to the polls, the military expected the NUP to win. When Suu Kyi’s NLD won by a landslide instead the junta ignored the result and suppressed the NLD. Periodic violent crackdowns have occurred over the years since, most notably against monk-led protests against military rule in 2007.

Media reports around the time of the 1990 election bear an uncanny resemblance to the situation today.

“The people of Myanmar, formerly Burma, vote on Sunday in the first multiparty election in almost 30 years, but Western diplomats based there and human-rights organizations say that the voting will not be free or fair and that the military will continue to rule,” the New York Times reported a day before the May 27 vote.

“Critics have said the elections will be a charade intended to perpetuate military control while showing sufficient obeisance to Western democratic forms to offer trade-minded neighbors like Japan an excuse to restore suspended trade and investment.”

Two decades on, the prognosis is similar.

“The only imaginable outcome is … [national and regional legislatures] dominated by elected representatives from the government-supported parties and appointed members from the military,” Brookings Institution senior fellow Lex Rieffel wrote on Tuesday.

“While the next government will be civilian in form, it will be thoroughly military in reality.”

Last week a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives accusing the junta of “seek[ing] to legitimize military rule through a flawed election process.”

The resolution called on the Obama administration not to recognize the results of the election and to implement fully a 2008 law that requires the imposition of financial sanctions and the appointment of a special representative and policy coordinator on Burma.

It also urged support for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma.

After months of lobbying by activists and lawmakers the administration last August threw its backing behind the call for a U.N.-led inquiry. It has also won support from a dozen other countries, all Western democracies.

Aung Din, a Burmese former political prisoner and executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma welcomed the resolution.

“This is a timely and necessary action on the part of the U.S. Congress to warn the U.S. administration not to wait and see, but to take effective action without further delay to stop the regime’s plan to build a permanent military dictatorship in Burma, with the help of [trade and investment partners] China, India, and North Korea,” he said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow