Vote Dilemma for Burmese

Ahead of polls, the military junta woos people to vote while activists call for an election boycott.
2010-11-02
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Independent candidate Yu Zar Maw Tun (C), calls for donations for the victims of Cyclone Giri during her election campaign in Rangoon, Oct. 31, 2010.
Independent candidate Yu Zar Maw Tun (C), calls for donations for the victims of Cyclone Giri during her election campaign in Rangoon, Oct. 31, 2010.
AFP

To vote or not to vote—this is the dilemma facing the people of Burma as the ruling military junta and sympathizers of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi wage a war of words ahead of Nov. 7 elections.

Supporters of detained Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which has boycotted the polls, are holding "lightning" protests telling the public that a vote on Sunday will legitimize military rule.

But junta officials argued that staying away from the elections will only pave the way for continued military rule, which the population has been under for nearly half a century.

"If people fail to vote, the military government will continue," warned a junta official, deputy energy minister Than Htay, a former general, in a speech on Nov. 2 in Tharawaddy, just outside the former capital of Rangoon.

State-controlled newspapers echoed the same message.

"If the election is aborted, there will not be a government that's elected by vote of the people," the newspapers said in commentaries.

"The ruling government would have no choice but to remain in charge of state security until it holds another election. If so, this will take a long time."

The election has been widely criticized by international groups, which say the vote cannot be democratic without the participation of Suu Kyi and other key opposition figures, and in the absence of independent observers and monitoring groups.

In the suburbs of Burma's biggest city Rangoon, as well as in the central Burma's Mandalay city, NLD activists held sporadic protests on Nov. 2 distributing anti-election pamphlets and calling on the people to stay at home on polling day.

"Voting on that day will legalize the military junta," was their message, one eyewitness said. The protests are held for short periods to avoid being detected by the military.

Interrogated for an hour

Still, NLD youth member Way Lu said former political prisoner U Thein Aung was taken in by police and interrogated for about an hour when he joined a boycott election campaign in north Okkalapa town just outside Rangoon, eyewitnesses said.

Several others were also believed to have been questioned by security personnel after they distributed 5,000 anti-election pamphlets in the area.

Another group of about 100 Suu Kyi supporters, mostly women, held open prayers for the release of the democracy icon, who is under house arrest and whose party has been dissolved because it refused to register to participate in the polls.

The NLD, led by the detained Nobel laureate, won the country's last election, in 1990, in a landslide, but the generals ignored the result.

A dozen of her supporters wearing anti-election T-shirts attempted to gather at the revered Shwedagon Pagoda—the center of the failed 2007 Saffron Revolution led by monks and sparked by rocketing fuel prices.

The supporters were quickly taken away by policemen guarding the sacred site and ordered to replace their T-shirts, eyewitnesses said.
 
In the run up to the polls, the military junta, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has tightened restrictions on foreign media and rejected all offers of international observers.

"Burma's Nov. 7 elections are being conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation, and resignation," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"These elections are about elite military transformation, not democratic transition, and offer little change to Burma's deplorable human rights situation," she said.

Voting in more areas are canceled

The junta's election body has also canceled voting in more areas belonging to restive ethnic minorities.

The Union Election Commission canceled balloting in 12 more village tracts in six constituencies in Kayah state "as conditions are not conducive to holding a free and fair election," according to an official notice seen on Nov. 2, AP reported. Each tract comprises several villages.

The announcement in the official gazette gave no further explanation for the action, but exile Burmese media have reported recent clashes between ethnic Karenni groups and government troops there.

In September, the commission canceled voting in about 300 village tracts in 33 townships where restive ethnic minorities are dominant.

The move is believed to have disenfranchised about 1.5 million people in more than 3,400 villages, though official numbers are not available.

Most of the ethnic groups in such areas have sought greater autonomy since Burma's independence in 1948, and the government maintains an uneasy ceasefire with them.

Also dampening the elections is the devastation caused by a cyclone that hit western Burma and, according to U.N. agencies, killed at least 45 and left 81,000 homeless last month.

The secretive state has given little details of the damage and casualties from the storm, but U.N. agencies said in Geneva on Nov. 2 that 200,000 people will require food aid over the next three months following Cyclone Giri's destruction of rice fields.

Reported by Moe Kyaw and Win Naing for Radio Free Asia's Burmese Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

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