Burma's current by-election campaign for some 50 seats in parliament is likely to determine Burma’s political future. At stake is the position of the pro-democracy party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the strength of the parliament itself, and the precariously balanced government of President Thein Sein—between the country’s reform-minded ministers and the hardliners.
While Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory, along with that of other NLD candidates, would strengthen the reformers' position and help give parliament an even stronger role, such a scenario has also galvanized the hardliners—who control the ruling Union Solidarity and Development party (USDP)—into action in order to prevent that happening.
This has the makings of a bitter and dirty campaign; for the hardliners cannot allow the Lady to go unchallenged. There’s too much riding on these elections as one seasoned observer of Burma, Professor Sean Turnell of Macquarie University in Australia, said recently after a visit to Burma.
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to run for parliament is an extremely important move for the future of the country,” Turnell said. “She is uniquely placed to drive reform forward and bring on board a substantial constituency to help maintain that momentum.” And this is likely to include constitutional change.
And perhaps more importantly, the future of the USDP is also at stake.
The NLD leader is contesting Kawhmu, a poor rural district on the southern outskirts of the former capital Rangoon—the country’s largest city and the Nobel Peace laureate’s hometown.
Her party is fielding candidates in almost all the 48 seats that are vacant—40 in the lower house, six in the upper house, and two in provisional assemblies. While this represents less than 15 percent of the seats in the national assembly—440 seats in the lower house and 224 in the upper house—the results are less important than the way in which these by-elections are conducted.
“We have taken the necessary measures so that the upcoming by-elections will be free, fair, and credible,” Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house, boldly told the EU development commissioner Andris Piebalgs, last week.
In fact, he met with President Thein Sein and the chairman of the Election Commission Tin Aye—weeks before Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD agreed to contest—and agreed that the by-elections would be free and fair. Even if it meant the ruling USDP got a severe drubbing in the polls.
This is nevertheless going to be difficult, because it is the USDP leaders—who are mainly hardliners—who will be campaigning in the election, even though Shwe Mann is nominally the head of the party.
So far the signs are ominous, and there is growing evidence that the hardliners are trying to scupper the NLD’s campaign. Some senior USDP leaders have instructed government officials to block the NLD’s electoral campaign in any way they can. This was already evident a few weeks ago when Aung San Suu Kyi wanted to speak to her supporters in Mandalay—the Election Commission gave her permission to speak but refused approval for her to use the main stadium there to address the rally.
The signs that this is going to be a dirty campaign were evident even before her first trip to the Dawei Industrial Zone area in southern Burma. In a clear preview of things to come, the former fisheries minister and USDP central executive member, Maung Maung Thein, warned residents in the area in mid-January that if they did not vote for the USDP they would lose their jobs, according to sources in the area.
Maung Maung Thein has considerable business interests in the area—especially in the fishing industry—though he has also been accused of colossal corruption.
All along the main road in Aung San Suu Kyi’s constituency there are big colorful billboards proclaiming to voters that the roads were being repaired by the USDP. In many places throughout the country, USDP is taking credit for infrastructure projects, medical centers, and schools built by the government. This may not sway voters from electing Aung San Suu Kyi—but may have a greater influence in other parts of the country.
The pro-democracy leader is not anxious to cry foul—at least just yet. “We have certainly come across a few hitches in the last couple of weeks with regards to the campaign of the NLD,” she told reporters recently. “We hope that these will be sorted out because … free and fair elections depend on how a campaign goes, not just how people are allowed to cast their vote on the day itself.”
The last elections—in November 2010—were scandalous. Harassment of opposition candidates, intimidation of the electors, vote-buying, and ballot-box stuffing was rampant. They were far worse than expected, making that election the least free and fair in the region in the last 30 years. So how can these polls be effectively monitored so that there is no repeat of the last polls?
The international community, including the U.N. human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana, have urged the new regime of Thein Sein to allow international observers to monitor the polls. While this would be a start, the greatest move which would show that these elections were free, fair, and legitimate, would be to allow international journalists in to follow the campaign and report on the elections, including polling day.
This is something the hardliners fear most—as they do not want their hidden hands revealed.
While some foreign journalists are being granted reporting visas, others are not. Even the personal intervention by the ASEAN Secretary-General, Surin Pitsuwan, before his current visit—which started Monday—went unheeded.
Only if experienced international journalists with a deep knowledge of Burma are allowed to extensively cover these forthcoming elections can there be any real hope that they will be free, fair, and legitimate.
Larry Jagan is a former BBC regional correspondent who is based in Bangkok and has extensively covered Burma issues.