Boycotts and Bans That Put Participation of Minorities in Question Add to Doubts Over the Legitimacy of Election
MAE SOT, Thailand—As Myanmar prepares for its first election in two decades, many of its residents are unlikely to participate, adding to growing doubts over the vote’s legitimacy.
Myanmar Election 2010
Election watchers increasingly are focused on Myanmar’s restive ethnic minority groups, which make up about a third of the population and control large swaths of territory along its borders with China and Thailand, in some cases backed by their own private militias.
Some of the groups plan to boycott the Nov. 7 national election or intend to block election officials from visiting communities they control because they believe it won’t be fair, according to ethnic leaders and other people familiar with their activities.
Other ethnic-minority residents will be prevented from voting by the government, which has said it won’t allow polling in some villages dominated by ethnic groups because it won’t be able to fully oversee voting there.
Although a few ethnic leaders have publicly embraced the election, in one of the world’s most secretive nations, analysts say the number is far smaller than the regime had hoped a few months ago.
Of the 37 political parties approved to participate by election authorities, several represent ethnic-minority areas, though advocacy groups say some are dominated by pro-government figures who don’t represent the minority residents.
The potential for low participation in some areas comes as the National League for Democracy, Myanmar’s best-known opposition group, now actively campaigns for an election boycott, after initially refusing to register to participate. The NLD, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, easily won Myanmar’s last election in 1990, but the government ignored the results and imprisoned many of its top leaders, including Ms. Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest in Yangon.
Voting isn’t compulsory. But a recent commentary in state-controlled media warned residents that inciting voters to skip the polls was against the law, punishable by up to a year in prison.
The government officially disbanded the NLD this year. The party regrouped as a social organization and is sending representatives to villages to tell supporters not to cast ballots, its backers say.
“It’s going to be a sham election, so we’re trying to get that message out,” says Aye Kyaw, a vice chairperson of an NLD affiliate in the Thai-Myanmar border town of Mae Sot. “People should stay away from the polling stations.”
It is unclear how many people will ultimately join the boycott, or if their absence will be accurately reported in official results after polling closes. Khin Ohmar, a coordinator of Burma Partnership, a coalition of Myanmar-related pro-democracy groups, says she believes as many as three million voters might not participate in elections in ethnic-minority areas, though she added that some residents will likely be pressured into voting.
Critics of the military regime, which has controlled Myanmar since 1962, say it is impossible to hold a fair election in a country where the media are censored and more than 2,000 government critics have been jailed, according to human-rights advocates. The government, led by the aging Gen. Than Shwe, has placed additional limits on organizing campaign rallies and imposed hefty candidate registration fees that opposition leaders say made it difficult to field contestants in most areas. It remains unclear whether the general, who has ruled Myanmar since 1992, will retire after the election or assume some new post that allows him to remain in power.
Some 25% of parliamentary seats will be reserved for the military, and analysts widely expect the government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and its allies to win.
“There is no sign that there will be legitimacy associated with this process,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters in September, adding “recent reports that balloting will be deeply restricted in ethnic areas is worrisome.”
Nevertheless, the vote is being watched carefully around the world for any sign the resource-rich nation of 50 million people is inching toward democracy. Political leaders in China, Singapore and other Asian nations have expressed support for the process, which some Myanmar experts say could at least result in greater public political participation, even if the vote is flawed.
Boycotts could deprive ethnic groups of a chance to have a bigger say in a new government after the election ends. But boycotts also could prove embarrassing to the regime, which is keen to show a unified and peaceful nation to the outside world.
Analysts say the regime called the vote largely to boost its legitimacy in the eyes of foreign countries, including the U.S., which maintains tough sanctions against the junta.
Myanmar’s minority groups are among the vote’s biggest question marks. Although about 70% of Myanmar’s population is Burman, the dominant ethnicity, the rest is split between ethnic minorities including Wa, Shan, Karen, Kachin and other groups, many of which have waged decadeslong insurgencies against the government.
Tensions have intensified over the past year, as the government has sought, and largely failed, to convert ethnic militia units into “border guards” under the leadership of the Myanmar army so they can be subdued before the Nov. 7 vote.
Underscoring the tensions in ethnic areas, Myanmar’s military government last week blamed ethnic Kachin insurgents in northern Myanmar for a land-mine explosion that killed two people there. Myanmar’s election commission recently disqualified some Kachin leaders from running as candidates without citing a reason, a move that will likely further reduce the turnout in areas dominated by that minority group.
It wasn’t possible to reach ethnic Kachin leaders for comment.
Attempts to reach the Myanmar government were unsuccessful. It has previously said its election will be free and fair.
The government rarely speaks to the foreign media. Last week, the local Election Commission said foreign journalists wouldn’t be allowed into Myanmar to cover the polling.