Junta’s Asian friends close ranks, endorse poll

Marwaan Macan-Markar

A political fault line has emerged just days after Burma’s junta held the country’s first election in two decades, one that was held on Nov. 7 with near military precision to ensure a sweeping victory for the military regime’s allies.

This divide playing out on the international stage reflects foreign governments’ contrasting views of the poll, which is part of the junta’s seven- step roadmap to install a discipline-flourishing democracy in the South-east Asian nation.

The junta’s political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), claims to have won over 80 percent of seats in Parliament, as was predicted by critics of the regime. Also expected were the litany of charges of fraud, vote rigging and the abuse of power by pro-regime factions.

Coming to the defence of the regime in Burma, or Myanmar, are the country’s Asian neighbours, some of which had shown signs of encouragement before the poll. In this chorus is the Association of South- east Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member regional bloc that includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, in addition to Burma.

“ASEAN welcomes the General Election held on 7th November 2010 in Myanmar as a significant step forward in the implementation of the 7-point Roadmap for Democracy,” declared Vietnam, the current chair of the regional bloc that has a history of throwing a protective cloak around Burma when it comes to international criticism.

“ASEAN encourages Myanmar to continue to accelerate the process of national reconciliation and democratisation, for stability and development in the country,” added the foreign ministry of Vietnam, a country under the iron grip of its own communist party that brooks no opposition and has been hostile toward any hint of democracy within its borders.

Asia’s communist giant China has been as unequivocal about its support for Burma, where it has invested millions of dollars to exploit the country’s rich natural resources. “This is a critical step for Myanmar in implementing the seven-step road map in the transition to an elected government and is thus welcome,” a foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing told the media.

But in sharp contrast against China and the majority of ASEAN members — which have limited to non-existent democratic cultures — are the industrialised nations in the west that have condemned the poll as a sham. “It is unacceptable to steal an election, as the regime in Burma has done again for all the world to see,” said U.S. President Barack Obama in a speech to the Indian parliament, echoing the sentiments expressed in London and some European capitals.

This East-West divide reflects just how open to interpretation a contentious election is. “The governments in the region were looking at what existed before and they see the poll as paving the way for something different,” said Thant Myint-U, a respected Burmese historian and author. “The western governments judged the election by the high democratic standards they are familiar with.”

Yet he cautions against expecting more from what some see as the military’s loosening of some of its grip on power for this election, only the second multi-party poll to be held since the military grabbed power in a 1962 coup. “It is difficult to say, because any political opening is going to be tenuous,” Thant told IPS. “One cannot say how long the political space will last.”

The guarded sense of optimism about more openness under the oppressive junta has been shaped by a noticeable opening – however small – for Burmese to converse openly about democracy on the streets and in teashops following an order in August that said “democracy” is a permissible word.

Supporters of the opposition parties disillusioned by their candidates’ defeat due to the “advanced voting” mechanism, under which government employees, the military and people travelling on voting day were given the option to cast their ballots days before Nov. 7, have not gone silent since that day, says a Rangoon-based analyst. “People are frustrated, people are angry and there is a feeling of politics in the air.”

But analysts familiar with Burma’s reclusive strongman, Senior Gen Than Shwe, point out that the regime has no intention of conceding even marginal ground to its political opponents.

“If the final vote in the parliament was fixed so that the USDP got 70 percent of the votes and the opposition got 30 percent, then it would have confirmed that there was a small and relevant opening for the opposition,” said Win Min, a Burmese national security expert. “That 30 percent would have given the opposition enough power to at least summon the parliament for a sitting.”

But the regime, which under the Constitution had been guaranteed 110 seats in the 440-seat national legislature for non-elected military offices, wanted to assert its dominance in this new political arena, revealed Win Min. “They wanted to have a symbolic yet weak opposition. It shows their true colours; they did not want to make any concessions.”

The means for ensuring this dominance was advanced voting, under which an estimated two percent of the nearly 30 million registered voters were given the option to vote ahead.

The regime reportedly went “door-to-door” to get members of a pro-junta social and development association that gave rise to the USDP to vote ahead, tapping its nearly 17 million members. “This is why advance voting was the game changer,” said Win Min. “Governments who are endorsing the election should take note of this rigging.”