BANGKOK, Thailand — Burma’s first parliamentary election in two decades was beyond skewed or manipulated.
By most measures, it wasn’t an election at all — a point President Barack Obama reinforced Monday during a speech to Indian lawmakers. "It is unacceptable to steal an election, as the regime in Burma has done again for all the world to see," Obama said while speaking at Parliament House in New Delhi.
Many Burmese on Sunday were handed ballots pre-marked with votes for the military junta’s aligned political entity, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, according to election monitors operating secretly inside the country. Villagers said polling booths were positioned so that officials could peek at voters’ choices.
By mid-morning, voting was already closed in parts of Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city, according to monitors with the Asian Network for Free Elections Foundation. The military-run government, monitors said, explained that 100 percent of votes were already cast.
“This election is a joke,” said Somsri Han-Anuntasuk, the watchdog group’s director. “There are many layers of cheating and irregularity.”
While votes were still being counted, violence broke out today between rebels and the military as thousands of refugees fled into Thailand, the Associated Press reported. Ethnic Karen rebels reportedly seized a police station and post office Sunday in Myawaddy and at least 10 people have been wounded. Rebels had warned recently that civil war could result if the military deprives them of their rights.
Since a 1962 coup, the military in Burma (officially recognized as Myanmar) has ruled the former British colony through fear and force. It most recently allowed elections in 1990, but junked the results and jailed many of the victorious party’s candidates. Its war against ethnic minorities’ guerrilla armies — a disjointed force of more than 65,000 jungle fighters — is ongoing.
Analysts agree that Sunday’s election will change very little inside the secretive country. Billed by the junta as a transition to democracy, the process was more akin to election theater. Polls are closed and results will be announced “in time,” according to the junta. But victory for the military’s favored party, filled by recently retired generals and their associates, is all but assured.
Barred from covering the election inside Burma, foreign journalists set up a monitoring center to share reports from candidates and monitors-in-hiding. A call from Andrew Heyn, stationed in the capital Rangoon (officially Yangon) as the United Kingdom’s Burma ambassador, suggested voters were just “going the motions of a process ... that’s predetermined.”
“They’re feeling quite intimidated to vote for [military-aligned party] the USDP,” Heyn said. The ballots, he said, are numbered and traceable. “Authorities will know which ward and which areas have voted in which way.” Soldiers have warned of negative consequences in areas that vote for unfavorable parties or simply for not voting at all.
In remote regions rife with anti-government guerrillas, voting was canceled outright. More than 24,000 villages — amounting to 5 percent of all eligible voters — were barred from the election, according to pro-democracy group AltSean.
Citizens were also permitted to vote on behalf of family members or, in the case of local headmen, entire villages. In some areas, Somsri said, the government halfway constructed roads and bridges, agreeing to finish the sorely needed projects only if that ward voted for the military’s party.
Though most Asian governments are expected to honor the election, the U.S., U.K. and European Union have already issued condemnations. During a visit to Australia, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the elections “once again expose the abuses of the military junta.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” Clinton said, “because the people of Burma deserve so much better.”
The military will fill one-fourth of the new parliament’s seats and control key ministries. Many of the political candidates are former senior officers. The army also retains the right to shut down parliament and take control by announcing an emergency situation.
Long besieged by the army, Burma’s minority ethnic groups are warning that the election will be followed by a coming offensive to incapacitate their militias. In early November, six major ethnic armies agreed to amass fighters and battle as one force if the military begins a fresh campaign.
Burma’s fledgling air force has also recently purchased up to 50 Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters, according to The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based magazine established by Burmese exiles.
“We see a sort of alliance emerging between these groups,” said Donna Guest, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific program. “The new government, which they’ll claim was elected legitimately, may feel they have an increased mandate” to crackdown on armed ethnic groups.
Altogether, Burma’s ethnic groups could potentially put up an effective force of skilled fighters, said Tim Heinemann, a retired U.S. Army colonel and head of Worldwide Impact Now, a non-profit that assists oppressed peoples.
“If you put them all together, they’re a sizable aggregate force with the ability to cause a lot of headaches,” he said. But the ethnic armies are heavily outnumbered by the more than 450,000-man force wielded by the Burmese military. “The military may assassinate [ethnic groups’] leaders. If you took out the head, they’d be left with a flopping body.”
Despite muted optimism in some camps that the election could signal change in Burma, the country’s ethnic minorities can only anticipate more violence, Heinemann said. “The election doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s like putting the facade of a church on a whorehouse.”