Like the old philosophical conundrum about the noise made by a tree falling in a deserted forest, so the upcoming election in Burma raises the question: if a country goes to the polls and no one is there to see, how do we know elections have taken place at all?
To be fair, many of Burma’s 29 million eligible voters will bear witness to the country’s first multi-party elections in two decades this Sunday. But with international election observers and foreign journalists banned and domestic reporters prevented from going within 50 metres of polling stations the elections will not get proper scrutiny.
Even if there is no electoral fraud on the day, the result will have been carefully stage-managed by Burma’s current military rulers. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) – the party whose overwhelming majority in the 1990 elections was ignored by the junta – is boycotting the elections in protest at the country’s new Constitution which reserves three key ministerial posts for serving generals and 25% of seats in all chambers for the military. The two main parties contesting the polls are closely linked to the military and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) led by former junta officials is almost certain to sail to victory.
Burma’s military government has billed the election as part of its “road map to democracy” after 50 years of military rule but with little freedom of association, assembly or movement and strict state control of the media and the electoral process it his hard to see how these elections can be seen as democratic. Millions of ethnic minorities in several states have had their ballot cancelled on the grounds that “conditions are not conducive to holding a free and fair election”. In addition nearly one million stateless Rohingya Muslims and millions of other Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, Malaysia and India have been denied the vote.
Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch stated this week that the elections “are being conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation, and resignation” and are about “elite military transformation rather than democratic transition.”
Just 3 years after the Saffron revolution saw protesting monks grab headlines around the world, Burma’s rulers are determined to prevent these elections from getting much media coverage and are hopeful that the result will provide a facade of legitimacy to the new government. With journalists banned and the election result already a foregone conclusion newspaper editors might ask them ‘where’s the story?’ But no matter how little news seeps out about this election, the Burmese people’s ongoing struggle against repression is story that should not be forgotten.