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Burma's by-elections: Free and fair or April fools?

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30 March 2012 11:54

Alexandra Meagher is a London-based lawyer who has been working as a volunteer with the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).

The announcement by Burma's military-backed Government last week that it will allow international observers to monitor the April 1 by-elections has been lauded as proof that it is serious about its 'roadmap to democracy'. US Senator John McCain, who recently visited Burma, noted that it 'gives reason for hope that this election could be free, fair, and credible'.

We need to be careful, however, before we open the champagne. By permitting only observers from governments and giving them limited time to observe the elections, Burma may be attempting to legitimise a process that is already marred by reports of electoral fraud.

In the latest step in a series of democratic reforms, the Government announced it would allow international observers from the US, UN, EU, ASEAN nations and others to monitor the elections. Australia announced on Friday that it too would send a delegation. So far, the permission is limited to government observers. Experienced observers from civil society organisations, such as the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), which has observed elections throughout the region since 1997, are missing from the list of accredited observers.

Instead, last week, ANFREL Executive Director Somsri Hananuntasuk, and those traveling with her, including myself, were asked to leave the country after entering on tourist visas.

Following calls from the UN and US for Burma to allow international monitors, ANFREL was openly present in Burma, trying to meet with the Union Election Commission to follow up on a written request for formal accreditation for an observation mission. The accreditation never came. The decision to allow international observers was made public on the very same day that ANFREL was asked to leave.

Assessments of elections by international observers often reflect the interests of their member states or donors. Governments have mixed motives in dealing with Burma: hopeful for free and fair elections but also concerned about significant strategic interests, such as ending sanctions. Their observers may be forced to validate the election results as proof that Burma is transitioning to democracy, regardless of what happens. In this context, it is disappointing that groups such as ANFREL, which could provide an important independent opinion, have been left off the list.

Further, the very timing of the announcement — just two weeks before polling day — means any observation mission will fall far short of international standards. Election observation has three phases: first, the pre-election period, which focuses on candidate selection and campaigning; second, election day; and third, what happens afterwards, namely whether the election results are implemented. As UN human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana stressed, 'the credibility of the elections will not be determined solely on the day of the vote, but on the basis of the entire process leading up to and following election day.' Approving observers just ten days before the elections and allowing them to arrive in-country only three days before the polls does not allow enough time for a full picture of the crucial pre-election period.

The campaign period is especially important in cases of democratic transition like Burma. While the campaigning of opposition parties is more open than in 2010 and the streets of Rangoon are filled with posters, stickers and t-shirts supporting Aung San Suu Kyi, there are also worrying reports from local and international press.

These include descriptions of threats to cut electricity if voters attend opposition campaign events and gross errors in voter registration lists. The NLD has also complained of censorship of Suu Kyi's campaign speech broadcast on state-run media and problems obtaining campaign venues. Without enough time to verify such reports, the very presence of international observers risks rubber-stamping election fraud.

In less than a year, Burma has shown unanticipated and very encouraging signs of increasing democratic openness. Meeting the international standards of election monitoring in these elections would send a clear signal that this is more than window-dressing and sets a strong precedent for the general election in 2015. For the sake of the first-time voters I met last week, excited to make a real choice for the first time in a generation, let us hope that the Government's promises of 'free and fair' elections is no April Fool's Day joke.

Photo by Flickr user soelin.

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