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‘Troubling’ Burmese elections may lead to instability, warns bishop

16 November 2020


A police officer stands guard outside a polling station in Mandalay, in Burma, earlier this month

A police officer stands guard outside a polling station in Mandalay, in Burma, earlier this month

THE election in Burma this month should have delivered “stability and security”, but has instead led to the possibility of “unrest and insurgency”, owing to the manner in which the process was carried out, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has said.

Dr Smith, who has commented previously on the ongoing crisis in Burma (News, 8 September 2017), said in a statement on Friday: “The second election in Myanmar should have delivered stability and security for its people, but reports of its conduct suggest that, instead, unrest and insurgency could result.”

The election on Sunday to decide Burma’s ruling party was the second multi-party election ever held in the country, which has been under military rule for more than 50 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the governing party led by the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, stated on Monday that it had won the election, gaining more than the 322 seats needed to form a government.

Campaigners said that it was impossible for elections to be fair or free, owing to attempts at vote-rigging by the ruling party, the restriction of internet access for large areas of the population, and prison sentences, fines, and death threats for people who criticised the NLD.

Burma’s Muslim minority group, the Rohingya, who have been victims of ethnic cleansing by the Burmese military, are also excluded from voting (News, 24 May 2019).

Dr Smith wrote: “Instead of all voices being heard in free and fair voting, some have been suppressed, exacerbating the repression of groups including the Rohingya, many of whom been driven out of Myanmar, only to be plagued by violence and human trafficking in Bangladeshi refugee camps. Their exile has been compounded by exclusion from a fundamental characteristic of citizenship: the right to be heard through casting a vote.

“Allegations from international observers make it hard to trust claims that polling booths were closed in some areas for the safety of voters rather than that they might diminish the vote for some candidates. Kidnappings of candidates by the Arakan Army are deeply troubling.

“It is good that her Majesty’s Government has acknowledged these shortcomings in the election process and called for elections to be held in areas where they were suppressed, for the freeing of those kidnapped and above all for citizenship laws to be amended to ensure full participation,” he said.

The United Nations has recommended that countries donating to Burma consider withdrawing support if ethnic minorities continue to be prevented from participating in the elections. The UK, which gives financial aid to Burma, has not supported this.

The senior analyst for East Asia at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Benedict Rogers, said on Friday that the recent election showed how Burma had not lived up to the hopes that were present in 2015.

“The re-election of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy is no surprise at all. However, while it is a welcome alternative to any return to full military rule, it is tinged with concern about the flawed conduct and process of these elections. In contrast to the election five years ago, where the victory of Daw Suu and her party was celebrated as an advance for democracy and human rights, today we are faced with the tragic reality that over the past five years of her government human rights have regressed, democratisation has stalled and conflict has increased,” he said.

“So many thousands of electors from ethic and religious minorities were disenfranchised in these elections, exacerbating rather than healing divides. For Aung San Suu Kyi’s second term, her absolute top priorities must be constitutional reform, the promotion of multi-party democracy, the protection of freedom of religion or belief and the pursuit of meaningful peace in the ethnic areas. If those are her priorities, then there is still a chance of hope for Burma.

“If these goals are not prioritised, nothing will change.”

In a statement last week, the executive director of the Burma Campaign, Anna Roberts, said: “The fact that these elections are less free and fair than the last should be a wake-up call to the international community about the direction Burma is moving in.

“Ethnic and religious minorities are being disenfranchised on a huge scale, and the international community is virtually silent. If there can’t be constitutional democratic reforms, and elections are less free and fair, where is the democratic transition the British government and others say they are supporting?”

The other main party in the country is the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which controls a quarter of the seats in both the lower and upper houses of the Burmese Parliament, as required by the country’s constitution.

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