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Asia

Elections in Myanmar are unlikely to be 'free and fair'

As Myanmar, also known as Burma, prepares for elections, human rights organizations and many Western governments have voiced concerns that Sunday's poll will not be 'free and fair' and have criticized the ruling junta.

The National League for Democracy has called for an election boycott

The National League for Democracy has called for an election boycott

The country's economy is shattered. Most of the people are extremely poor. Myanmar has neither a functioning healthcare system nor good education. Human rights violations are the order of the day. In 2007, peaceful protests by Buddhist monks were brutally quashed by the military.

This is why the country’s military rulers are looking for some kind of legitimacy and have called the elections, explained Henning Effner from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Peaceful protests by Buddhist monks in 2007 were brutally suppressed

Peaceful protests by Buddhist monks in 2007 were brutally suppressed

"The junta has governed by decree for over 20 years," he said. "These elections are meant to give their military rule some kind of democratic gloss. And it will help them counter international criticism."

Aung San Suu Kyi banned from elections

According to the military government, these elections are supposed to be a step toward a so-called disciplined democracy. But Effner said this was empty rhetoric:

"The election process in the past weeks and months has not corresponded with democratic standards. Every step - from the registration of political parties to the nomination of candidates and the election campaigns - has been strictly controlled by the military government. The process has not been free and fair at all."

The strict election laws have especially affected the opposition. The laws disqualify anybody who is imprisoned. This includes Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, or NLD, who has spent the best part of 20 years in detention, as well as over 2000 political prisoners.

The NLD has said these elections a sham and has called for a boycott.

Aung San Suu Kyi could be released after the elections

Aung San Suu Kyi could be released after the elections

Other smaller parties that want to take part in the elections have other hurdles to overcome. Each candidate has to pay a registration fee of $500 (355 euros). "This is more than the average annual income in Myanmar and too much for most opposition parties. Therefore, some have only nominated a few candidates and others are not running at all," said Effner.

Tough for opposition

The weak and fractioned opposition is up against two very strong government-friendly parties - the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National Unity Party (NUP). Many of their candidates are former members of the junta, who have simply removed their uniforms.

"Contrary to the opposition parties, these parties have been able to avail themselves of the regime’s propaganda apparatus and its financial resources for their election campaign," said Jasmin Lorch from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Moreover, the new constitution that was adopted in 2008 guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament.

Ethnic minorities struggle

Many of Myanmar's 130 ethnic minorities have also formed political parties to run in the elections in the hope of being able to nurture their language, culture and identity more.

Although the 2008 constitution did little to address their struggle for more self-determination and independence, it did create local parliaments in Myanmar's 14 regions.

Earlier this week, however, the government said elections would not take place in certain regions with large ethnic minority populations, citing "security concerns."

Author: Ana Lehmann
Editor: Anne Thomas

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