Voters in the secretive military-ruled nation of Burma cast their first ballots in 20 years today, as slim hopes for democratic reform faced an electoral system engineered to ensure that most power will remain in the hands of the junta and its political proxies.
While it remained unclear when results would be announced – officials would only say they would come “in time” – there was little doubt that the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party would emerge with an enormous share of the parliamentary seats, despite widespread popular opposition to 48 years of military rule.
Many voters said they simply wanted to cast their votes against the junta’s politicians.
“I cannot stay home and do nothing,” said Yi Yi, a 45-year-old computer technician in Rangoon, the country’s largest city. “I have to go out and vote against USDP. That’s how I will defy them (the junta).”
Voting against them, though, may not matter very much.
The junta’s proxy party, which is led by a just-retired general and has the government’s enormous financial resources at its disposal, is fielding 1,112 candidates for the 1,159 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments.
The largest anti-government party, the National Democratic Force, is contesting just 164 spots.
Election rules were clearly written to benefit the USDP, with hundreds of potential opposition candidates – including pro-democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory in the last election in 1990 but was barred from taking office – under house arrest or in prison. Many other potential candidates in the poverty-wracked nation were simply unable to raise the £310 registration fee.
Several parties say many voters were already strong-armed into casting ballots for the junta’s proxy party in a system of advance voting.
No matter the election results, the constitution sets aside 25% of parliamentary seats for military appointments.
Suu Kyi has dismissed the election as rigged and urged her party, the National League for Democracy, to boycott the vote, leading to its dissolution.
Few observers expected surprises from the election.
“The only real surprise result would be that one pro-establishment party would beat an even more pro-establishment party,” British Ambassador Andrew Heyn said today. He was referring to the USDP’s closest rival, the National Unity Party, which is backed by supporters of the country’s previous military ruler.
Mr Heyn called the election a “huge missed opportunity” for democratic change.
Speaking today to a group of college students in Mumbai, US President Barack Obama said the elections were “anything but free and fair”.
Mr Obama, who is on a tour of Asia, said that “for too long the people of Burma have been denied the right to determine their own destiny”.
Despite the storm of criticism, some voters and experts on Burma, said the election could herald a modicum of change from the decades of iron-fisted rule and gross economic mismanagement of the resource-rich nation.
“The elections, for all their farcical elements, have already achieved something: Burmese people are listening and talking more about politics than they have for a long time,” said Monique Skidmore of the Australian National University. “It seems likely that the very small public political space will be widened and this is probably the best outcome we can hope for from the election.”
Optimists say even a handful of opposition parliamentarians could allow for limited government oversight, and possibly pave the way for more political change in the years to come.
Voting passed quietly across the South-East Asian nation, with no reports of violence or major protests.
Voter turnout appeared light at many polling stations. Some residents said they were staying home as rumours circulated that bombs would explode.
Riot police were deployed at a handful of key junctions, though the junta appeared anxious to keep its massive security apparatus in the background on voting day, and very few soldiers could be seen on the streets.
The regime earlier banned foreign journalists and international poll monitors from the election.
Democracy advocates are now looking toward the coming few days. Officials have indicated that Suu Kyi could be freed from house arrest sometime after the election, perhaps as early as November 13.
Suu Kyi has been locked up in her Rangoon villa on and off ever since the ruling generals ignored the 1990 poll results. They hold a total of some 2,200 political prisoners.
The regime has also been criticised for its brutal treatment of ethnic minorities seeking greater autonomy.
In the wake of rising tension before the election, the junta cancelled voting in 3,400 villages in ethnic minority areas and has increased its military presence in the countryside. About 1.5 million of the country’s 59 million people have thus been disenfranchised.
Some ethnic minority groups, like the Karen, have been fighting the government since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948. Others, including the powerful Wa and Kachin, had forged ceasefire agreements that now appear in jeopardy amid fears that the constitution activated by the elections would quash their hopes for a federal system.
With ethnic minorities making up about 40% of the population, the outbreak of a full-scale civil war would have disastrous economic, political and humanitarian consequences. Some 600,000 ethnic minority people have already sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
“We fear an increase in violence in many parts of Burma after the election and more refugees fleeing to the border with Thailand. There will be no change, no end to suffering, for the people on the ground,” said Charm Tong, an exiled activist from the Shan minority.
For many people in Burma, the election brought little but fear.
“I voted for (Suu Kyi’s party) in 1990. This is my second time to vote,” said a 60-year-old man in Rangoon, Tin Aung, when asked which party he had voted for.
He then looked around and added: “I am really scared.”