Burma: Suu Kyi freed, but anger high at rigged vote

NLD members gathered at their Headquarters in Rangoon to celebrate Suu Kyi's 63rd birthday in 2008. Thugs from the Union Solidar

“The whole process was a fake!”, said Khin Maung Swe, a 68-year-old leader of the National Democratic Force (NDF), a breakaway from the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. “We just won 16 seats [out of the 163 the NDF contested] because of the so-called advance votes.”

Khin Maung Swe expressed outrage at the process of counting votes in Burma’s elections held on November 7 for the first time in 20 years. Opponents of the military junta said it rigged many “advance votes” — votes cast before the official date of the election — through threats and bribes.

Unlike the NDF, the NLD boycotted the poll, arguing it would be rigged. Regardless of the poll’s outcome, the military would keep control of key ministries. Under the constitution, a quarter of the 440 parliamentary seats are reserved for unelected military officials.

In May, the ruling junta passed a law that banned anyone serving a prison term for belonging to a political party from running for office. This excluded Burma’s more than 2000 political prisoners — many NLD members.

Suu Kyi was under house arrest for most of the 20 years since the NLD won the last elections in 1990. The military regime prevented the NLD from taking office.

The regime promised before the poll that it would release Suu Kyi after the elections. On November 13, Suu Kyi was freed, and thousands of supporters celebrated outside her hourse. However, the junta could re-arrest her at any time.

“We will register our complaint with Election Commission”, Khin Maung Swe told me in a phone interview two days after the elections. When asked if he trusted the commission, he answered: “How can we trust the junta-appointed commission? But we should take whatever action we can.”

In our first phone interview, on voting day, Khin Maung Swe optimistically said he thought 50-70% of the NDF’s 163 candidates could win.

He told me then: “We do know the election is not fair and free. But democracy is not an abstract matter, it should be tangible. This election is a starting point.”

Maung Swe’s hopes did not seem to be an illusion, assuming the counting process was transparent. However, that hope has proven to be an illusion.

Rangoon resident Kyi Maung (name changed) told me: “Many people voted for NDF. People like it, because it will say right thing for our future.

“But it’s failed, because [the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)] bought a lot of advance votes.”

For Kyi Maung, this was his first ever election in his “30-plus” years. He was interested to take the opportunity to learn who was who and what was what.

But, Kyi Maung said, “The Lady’s party didn’t participate!”, in reference to Suu Kyi and the NLD. He said people would have voted NLD if it had taken part.

Another resident in Rangoon, a lawyer, chose to boycott the elections. “I cannot endorse the 2008 constitution”, he said. “It is a military constitution.”

One NGO worker in Rangoon said most people were not clear who is running or who they would vote for. However, he said: “I have not met a single person that wants to vote for USDP. Most strongly favor the NDF.”

Nevertheless, the junta-backed USDP secured for itself a “landslide victory”. The USDP has grabbed a number of seats, which democratic parties could have expected to win, thanks to its control of advance votes.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) issued a statement on November 9 calling on the junta to “urgently clarify why the counting process was not made transparent to the public and the media beginning with the first advance voting period”.

ANFREL director Somsri Hananumtasuk called the election “the worst in Asia”.

Asked if ANFREL ever requested permission from the junta to monitor the election, she said: “No. Why should we endorse the election by monitoring it?”

The general election in Burma, sometimes called “the generals’ election”, is the fifth step in the junta’s “Seven Step Roadmap to Discipline-flourishing Democracy”. This process began in 1993, when the junta called all parties to take part in a national convention to draft a new constitution.

In 1993, the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA) was also formed. Ostensibly a “social organisation”, the USDA is the junta’s proxy force to intimidate people and harass opponents.

In 2003, then-prime minister and spy chief Khin Nyunt turned the process into a “roadmap”. The so-called roadmap has been continued, although Khin Nyunt was kicked out by the junta the next year.

The USDA acted as violent militia, attacking Suu Kyi and her followers in a parade in May 2003, killing about a hundred people. It transformed itself into a political party, the USDP, to take part in the recent poll.

At this critical junction in Burma’s struggle for democracy, it is crucial to review what opponents of the junta, especially the NLD, have and have not achieved since 1990. The NLD is the only legal opposition group with a popular mandate, derived from the 1990 poll.

The junta has carried out its roadmap one step after another, but the NLD has failed to create an alternative, democratic roadmap. Neither has the NLD sought to organise and lead mass protests against the military dictatorship — it has simply taken part in such protests when they have occurred.

Suu Kyi and the NLD have long pursued dialogue with the junta, which has never listened during many failed talks.

Bertil Lintner, a renowned journalist, has detailed what he considered fatal mistakes by NLD after the 1990 election in his book entitled Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy.

Linter said after the May 1990 election, the junta was stunned by NLD’s landslide win and spent weeks in a state of shock. However, he said the NLD simply waited for the junta to hand it power. He said the NLD made a mistake in not immediately declaring its victory before the world and mobilising it supporters.

Such inaction and lack of political strategy seemed to be repeated in the latest elections.

It was only a handful of NLD youth, as well another youth group called Generation Wave that was formed after the monk-led Saffron revolution in 2007, who actually agitated for the boycott campaign throughout Burma. Most of the NLD did not organise a public campaign around its boycott call.

Yet before and after the elections, there was a surprising level of discussion among ordinary people about politics.

A Rangoon-based analyst told me: “Common people are talking openly about politics now — in barber shops, taxis, internet cafes. There is outrage too at the reports about the advance voting.

“And this anger is itself a healthy sign of the re-emerging political milieu.”

It is regrettable that the boycott campaign did not seek to use these unprecedented “open spaces”.

On election day, there was reportedly a banner in front of NLD headquarters in Rangoon that read: “Five days left until the Lady is released.”

No one doubts Suu Kyi’s release would be a big victory, long awaited by the entire world short of the junta and its friends. However the banner reveals the absence of a political message on the very day of election.

At the same time, the armed ethnic groups have formed alliances against the junta’s forces.

Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of Karen rebel group KNU, and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) have been foes since the DKBA split from the KNLA 15 years ago to become pro-junta militia.

Both have been killing each others members since the split.

However, the election process has provided space for them to unite. Since the new constitution was passed by the sham referendum amid the terrible disaster cyclone in 2008, the junta has pressured the armed ethnic groups with which it has a cease-fire to transform themselves into Border Guard Forces (BGF) under the junta’s command.

Most DKBA brigades agreed. However, DKBA Brigade Five, launched an attack on election day on government compounds in Myawaddy, a border town in eastern Burma.

A KNLA source confirmed to me its rumoured support for the DKBA brigade. “Before they started in Myawaddy at 9am”, the source said, “the DKBA combined with KNLA to launch an attack in Wa Lay [near the Thai border] at 8am”.

The source said the KNLA would continue to support DKBA Brigade Five in fighting against the junta. Since hostilities broke out on the elections day, there have been reports of the clashes spread over more of the borders areas.

Sein Win, the editor of India-based Burmese exile publication Mizzma, said: “There will be no end of conflict and no democracy in Burma without solving the ethnic problems.”

The controversial elections have certainly overshadowed the junta’s ambitions to advance its roadmap. But it’s too early to predict what the repercussions of the rigged result will be for the junta.

The junta’s ambition to control all ethnic armies has been resisted by seemingly united ethnic forces. But it also remains to be seen whether or not the world’s longest civil war will be resumed on a large scale.

Most of all, Suu Kyi, once she is free, will face a divided opposition and complicated politics and ethnic issues. There is no doubt there are huge expectations and hope placed on her. If Suu Kyi’s response is the same idealistic hope of dialogue with the junta as in the past, the struggle for democracy in Burmese may become stalled.

It is time for the democratic forces of Burma to present a plan for the way forward. It is, in the end, the people of Burma who will achieve democracy and self-determination for ethnic minorities.