Burma’s elections - a glimmer of hope?

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After months of speculation about the potential or lack thereof of the Burmese elections, Sunday 7th November came and went, and what votes were cast are now all in and being counted. The main military party - the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)  report that they have 'won' 80% of the votes, even before the 25% guaranteed for the army. Turnout was certainly low - although there is hardly a trend to compare it with, given that the last election was twenty years ago - and there were widespread reports of intimidation of voters at the polling stations, and coercion in advance of polling day. Many ethnic minority groups were disenfranchised anyway as their regions were deemed too unstable for a polling station. Foreign journalists were not authorised to go into the country and report, but those who did so anyway, undercover, described a very subdued atmosphere. There are no real surprises in any of this, and it is easy to leap to the conclusion that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have been vindicated for refusing to take part, and calling these elections what they were 'a sham' and turn our attention elsewhere.

This was certainly the assessment of many leaders of the international community. President Obama called the elections 'far from free and fair', and William Hague said that 'holding flawed elections does not represent progress'. This latter comment seems a very quick judgement on a question that academics and analysts working on the promotion of democracy have pondered for decades. Still, in this instance at least, there is truth in what Hague says 'if the Generals' cynical aim was to use the prospect of the election to divide the legitimate opposition, and create a rival elected alternative to the people's hero Aung San Suu Kyi to cement their power further, they have probably succeeded in doing this. And to some extent it doesn't really matter what European and American leaders say anyway: these are not the voices that the Burmese regime listen to.

Let's turn then to a voice that does matter to the Burmese leaders, the People's Republic of China. On Monday, the Global Times ran a story saying that Beijing 'supported Myanmar's plan to transform its political system, but knows it will not happen overnight?. Indeed it called the election 'a step forward'. This is certainly a different take from that of Obama and Hague, which is not unexpected: China and the West do not always see eye to eye on what constitutes political progress. But what is interesting is that China is commenting on another regime, using the language of progression towards democracy. It is in this acknowledgement of democracy as an end goal, whether it is in good or bad faith, that a glimmer of hope can be seen for Burma. In setting out something called a 'road map to democracy'; in holding elections at all, albeit seriously flawed elections, the Burmese generals are basically accepting what the NLD and other activists in and outside the country have long argued: that the junta's dictatorship is not justifiable. Ultimately, they know that they cannot operate completely in isolation. If they want to retain a place in ASEAN, to keep China's support, and take steps towards acceptability within the UN system, and the possibilities of international finance which that entails, at some point they will have to answer for their violent repression of the country they run. These are questions to which they do not currently have even the beginnings of an answer. In choosing to hold something which at least has the semblance of an election, they are basically admitting that democracy is the best model that we have for governing a country. In this small way, the elections in Burma were a testament to the enduring strength of values on which the liberal international system was constructed.

This will be small recompense indeed for the people inside Burma in the coming weeks and months, as they see they newly elected government, made up of mostly the same people as the non elected regime they have known for twenty years, settle in. Neither will it give much hope to the thousands of refugees crossing the border into Thailand today to escape the violence in the wake of the elections in the clashes between Karen rebels and the government. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi is released from house arrest on 13th November, on a date carefully calculated to emasculate her in the run up to Sunday's elections, these arguments will seem a long way from the everyday life she and others have to endure. But it is still important that we do acknowledge the flicker of hope where it lights up, and that other governments work with it as effectively as they can, knowing that ultimately, change can only come from the people of Burma themselves.

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