´Burma: Restrictions Tighten Ahead of November 7 Elections´, HRW

Burma: Restrictions Tighten Ahead of November 7 Elections
Military Party Set to Dominate Future Parliament
November 3, 2010, HRW 

Burma´s November 7 elections are being conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation, and resignation.

Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch
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(New York) - The Burmese military government is increasing intimidation ahead of scheduled November 7, 2010 elections that are intended to ensure continued military rule with a civilian façade, Human Rights Watch said today in a comprehensive Q&A released today.

The Q&A on Burma´s elections details electoral technicalities, but also addresses the impact these elections will have on Burma´s population and how foreign governments should respond to improve human rights in Burma.

"Burma´s November 7 elections are being conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation, and resignation," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "These elections are about elite military transformation, not democratic transition, and offer little change to Burma´s deplorable human rights situation."

The human rights situation throughout Burma has worsened as the elections grow closer, with growing reports of voting irregularities and inducements to vote for the military-backed parties. The ruling State Peace and Development Council tightened restrictions on foreign media, rejected all offers of international observers, and maintained tight controls on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.

The Q&A looks at the carefully manufactured electoral process, the expected make-up of the new parliament, the role of the military after the elections, and the political parties participating. Out of 47 parties that attempted to register, 37 have been approved by the military government´s Union Electoral Commission. Many are small ethnic parties that will only contest a handful of seats for the three types of parliaments: the national level People´s Assembly, the national level Nationalities Assembly, and 14 regional parliaments for local candidates.

Under the 2008 Constitution, all three parliamentary structures will have a significant number of seats reserved for serving military officers. Only two parties will field candidates for almost every seat that is open to contest: the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the pro-military former Burmese socialist party, the National Unity Party (NUP).

The USDP, which looks set to dominate the election, was formed by Prime Minister Thein Sein and other cabinet ministers, all senior military officers who resigned from the armed forces in April. The party will field candidates in nearly all of the national- and regional-level seats open for candidates - approximately 1,158 seats.

Earlier this year, the USDP absorbed the financial assets, extensive infrastructure, and much of the membership lists - containing approximately 18 million people - of the military-created-and-controlled Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), formed in 1993. The USDA and its paramilitary wings have long been implicated in violent attacks against the opposition, and for the past few years have taken credit for local development projects in preparation for the elections. Local communities and small parties have reported a rise in intimidation and inducements by USDP party members, often aligned to local security forces, as the election approaches.

"The USDP is not just an intimidating behemoth that crowds out the handful of smaller opposition parties, but a tailor-made authoritarian political structure to ensure the military´s continued dominance," Pearson said. "Through acts of intimidation and petty corruption, the USDP has spread throughout Burma to perpetuate military rule with a civilian face."

A few parties with links to the political opposition have formed an alliance against the two main military connected parties, including the National Democratic Force, created by some former members of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi´s party, the National League for Democracy, and the Union Democratic Party. These parties together can only field a fraction of candidates.

The Q&A also addresses the international community´s response to the elections, and what governments should do to promote real change in Burma. Widespread international criticism of the unfair electoral process has not resulted in any concessions by Burma´s military government. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called the lack of progress "frustrating," and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the elections "deeply flawed." Indian and Chinese officials have expressed support for Burma´s electoral process.

In the Q&A, Human Rights Watch urges concerned governments to take various steps, including calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, and pressing the new government to respect human rights and commit to an inclusive political process. In addition, governments should press for increased access by humanitarian agencies and the media, and the removal of excessive restrictions on Burmese civil society and development groups.

"The international community doesn´t need to wait until November 7 to know these elections are rigged from top to bottom," Pearson said. "Governments and the UN should work together in setting the bar to press the new government for real change in Burma."