Fri 30 Mar 2012
Filed under: Opinion
Bangkok – Although only 45 parliamentary seats are up for grabs, Myanmar’s political future hinges on by-elections scheduled for April 1. Unlike the tightly orchestrated 2010 polls, the country’s first national elections in 20 years won overwhelmingly by military-backed candidates, the polls will be contested by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and its charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi and monitored by international observers.
If the polls and result are viewed as credible by international standards, the European Union and United States appear poised to begin rolling back the economic sanctions they have long maintained against the historically military-run country. With the removal of those sanctions at stake, there are strong indications that top leaders, including President Thein Sein and the Lower House speaker Shwe Mann, both former top soldiers, are committed to a free and fair democratic process.
Last November, Thein Sein, Shwe Mann and Election Commission chairman Tin Aye agreed that the planned by-elections should be free and fair, even if it meant that the ruling, military-affiliated United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) took a drubbing from voters. That decision was apparently taken before Suu Kyi and the NLD decided to participate in the process. The NLD refused to partake in the 2010 elections and the party was temporarily legally banned as a result.
Leaders of the USDP who are parliamentarians but not ministers are intent on winning outright in the by-elections, which some view as an early barometer of voter sentiment for the 2015 general elections. The USDP knows that a poor showing could weaken the party’s standing vis-a-vis the NLD, even with its overwhelming majority in the 664-seat national parliament. A confidential strategy paper, apparently written by a faction of the USDP and reviewed by this writer, outlines plans to win all the seats by any means possible.
Certain USDP leaders are known to be out of step with Thein Sein’s and Shwe Mann’s ambitious political and economic reform agenda, which has been widely lauded by the international community. The battle between reformers and hardliners in the government is intensifying and will set the stage for what happens after NLD members, including presumably Suu Kyi, enter parliament as elected representatives and push for faster reforms.
The by-elections have also tested the USDP’s cohesion and depending on the result may set the stage for a future intra-party power struggle. Shwe Mann, the USDP’s acting chairman, has issued and repeated orders as recently as last week that the by-elections must be free and fair. At a special USDP meeting in January, he warned there would be no place for party members who “bully the people, are arrogant, behave in an unpleasant way, show little thought for other people, breach party discipline, and hinder and disturb the inner party democratization”.
Not all party members, however, have taken this message to heart. Core USDP leaders, including Aung Thaung, Htay Oo and Maung Maung Thein, former junta ministers who were not given positions in Thein Sein’s nominally civilian administration, are known to be close to outgoing junta leader Senior General Than Shwe and have maintained his war-like mentality against the NLD. A resounding USDP defeat will likely give Shwe Mann the pretext he needs to reorganize and purge the party before the 2015 national elections.
Aung Thaung, a former minister for industry and close confidante of Than Shwe, is known to be in charge of the USDP’s campaign – as he was in the 2010 sham polls the party overwhelmingly won. He has reportedly told the party’s regional and provincial officials that campaigning must be more than verbal and provide benefits to the “stomach” of voters. This has reportedly involved building and repairing roads, and promising jobs as incentives to vote for the USDP.
So called USDP “election-winning committees” have been formed in all regions, states, divisions, townships, wards and village tracts. Special improvement committees were also established to carry out development tasks, each with seed money of five million kyat (US$6,250) per township. According to Yangon-based Western diplomats monitoring election preparations, the party has shown no shortage of funds. They note that hundreds of former government properties have been sold off in recent months to raise resources to fight the by-elections.
All along the main road in Suu Kyi’s contested constituency there are big colorful billboards proclaiming to voters that the roads have been repaired by the USDP, according to eyewitnesses. In many places across the country, the USDP has also taken direct credit for infrastructure projects, medical centers and schools built by the government.
Threats have also featured on the hustings. While campaigning in the Dawei industrial zone area in southern Myanmar last month, former fisheries minister and USDP central executive member Maung Maung Thein, who also has substantial business interests in the region, warned residents that if they did not vote for the USDP they would lose their jobs.
The NLD has already sounded alarms about early signs of electoral manipulation. At a press conference in Yangon earlier this month, party spokesman Nyan Win complained that USDP candidates had promised voters upgraded infrastructure and electricity supply and questioned the source of their funding to make such promises.
“Giving such promises is tantamount to buying votes and applying undue influence,” Nyan Win told reporters. Earlier this month, in an unusual but veiled attack on the ruling party, Suu Kyi lashed out against perceived electoral shenanigans: “Any political party that tries to win parliamentary seats by dishonest means will harm the entire country,” she told an election rally.
Suu Kyi’s campaign forays upcountry have been marred by various forms of intimidation and harassment. For instance, she has openly complained that her party’s billboards and signs have been defaced and destroyed in the capital Naypyidaw and that once they had been repaired, they were again destroyed.
Efforts have also been made to persuade people against attending her rallies. In Pathein in the Irrawaddy Delta area devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, local authorities put on a free Mohinga fest – the Burmese favorite dish – to dissuade people from attending her campaign speech. Most, however, ate the free food and attended the rally as well, according to an NLD source.
Civil servants were also apparently told not to welcome Suu Kyi or to attend her rallies while she was recently campaigning in the capital Naypyidaw. Police were ordered to turn their backs on her and the NLD’s convoy when it passed through the remote new capital.
There are also indirect indications that the USDP may try to manipulate the actual vote count. In Mandalay, for instance, village and quarter administrative chiefs have allegedly been told that they would lose their jobs if USDP candidates failed to win.
“Pressure must be applied on the polling stations where the USDP candidates were defeated in the 2010 poll,” the strategy paper says. “Polling officers and polling booth attendants must be befriended and won over. Assistance must be given to them to meet their economic and social needs.”
There is a strong precedent for electoral fraud. The 2010 polls were riddled with examples of stuffed ballot boxes and phantom advance voters. There are concerns that two electorates in the country’s south near Dawei could see similar advance voting irregularities among a supposed 100,000 fisherman who are now out at sea on a 90-day voyage and are expected to vote overwhelmingly in favor of the USDP.
“The international community needs to monitor the complete campaign process, to ensure that all candidates can campaign without undue obstructions,” said a Western diplomat based in Yangon. “And the conduct of advance voting – an enormous problem last time – will be the most critical area of focus.”
That said, it is unclear how accurate a picture the handful of international election monitors will see considering that they were granted last-minute permission to observe the polls. “The election monitors are only there to give the polls a seal of approval. They will almost certainly endorse the polls on very little evidence,” unless Suu Kyi rejects the vote, said a European diplomat based in Bangkok who covers Myanmar. “They are there to act as a rubber stamp.”
The army could play a surprising middle role in the polls. Army chief Min Aung Hlaing – who is a native of Dawei – told the troops stationed there that they were free to vote for whomever they wanted, marking a break from Than Shwe’s reported order to soldiers to vote for the USDP at the 2010 polls.
Min Aung Hlaing also told them to keep a watchful eye on the proceedings and as a result foot soldiers may prove to be the more effective poll monitors in areas without international observers. (Military appointees account for 25% of parliament under the 2008 Constitution.)
Some believe that a section of the army, including some of the soldiers appointed to parliament, will look towards Suu Kyi for leadership once she enters parliament. Many soldiers still respect her independence hero father Aung San and U Tin Oo, a former army chief and leading member of the NLD. There is a camp within the military that feels the widespread corruption under Than Shwe’s leadership tarnished the military’s image and prefers Suu Kyi’s clean hands image.
If Suu Kyi is elected to parliament, as seems inevitable considering the groundswell of popular support witnessed on nearly every stop of her campaign trail, she is expected to emerge quickly as a prominent voice and source of hope for Myanmar’s new democratic system.
“The future is bright,” a senior NLD member and close Suu Kyi confidante said. “If everything goes according to the game plan, Aung San Suu Kyi will be opposition leader in the near future and president after the next elections.”
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok