The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL-Foundation) welcomes recent political developments in Burma, progress which includes less censorship of the media; more engagement with the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, and some ethnic groups; the release of some, though not all, political prisoners; and finally, the re-registration of the NLD as a political party to contest for the 48 parliamentary seats up for grabs in a by-election expected next year. The last year has seen substantive progress in the country and the regime’s positive steps should be recognized and encouraged. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) did just that last month when it rewarded Burma with the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. While acknowledging constructive reforms made in the country, the democratic baseline in Burma was quite low and there remains much work to be done because the country still lacks major democratic institutions.
ANFREL of course welcomed the news that the Union Election Commission (UEC) of Burma has officially endorsed the National League for Democracy (NLD) to re-register as a political party and that Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to compete in the coming elections as its leader. This news is far from a guarantee however that the elections’ neutral and open operation will follow. Having won the 1990 election before they were removed from power in a military coup, the NLD’s ability to finally compete in an election is a necessary but not sufficient step towards a level electoral playing field. The change cannot erase the injustices that occurred after the 1990 election, but it does increase the chances of next year’s by-elections being more legitimate than the badly manipulated 2010 poll excluded the NLD entirely. This step alone, however, will not be enough to guarantee such legitimacy.
For this change to truly have an impact and for the government of Burma to follow through on the high-minded promises they have made, the newly registered party must be permitted to campaign freely and compete on a level playing field managed by an independent UEC. The UEC must ensure, for example, that the government/military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party is kept from abusing state resources in the lead up to the poll. The UEC must also operate in a more transparent manner both before and after the election, including in receiving, investigating, and adjudicating electoral disputes. The UEC, if operating independently and professionally, has the opportunity to lay the foundation for much improved elections. ANFREL hopes that they seize the great chance that lies before them.
Regarding the media, remaining censorship, particularly that which still applies to the news media, must be lifted well before the campaign period begins. The media has traditionally been used as a tool to deliver pro-government propaganda, a fundamental violation of the freedom of the press at all times and one that is particularly troubling during an election. Independent media will build up public trust in the election process and in the sincerity of the USDP to bring positive change to the country. On that same note, election observers, both domestic and international, should be allowed to observe all aspects of the polls. Their presence will build confidence in Burma’s poll and in the legitimacy of election management in the country.
Finally, as Burma prepares to assume chairmanship in 2014, ASEAN has a unique opportunity to promote lasting reform. As an important regional forum with significant soft power influence in the country, ASEAN can help Burma by encouraging it to continue down the path of reform it has embarked on. Stepping forward to provide support and leadership at this critical moment in Burma’s history will strengthen the image of ASEAN and help achieve its goal of a prosperous and peaceful regional community.