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12 November 2010, Gateway House

Myanmar elections: A Violation of Human Rights?

Myanmar is a complex issue. Its history, its treatment by neighbours and the West, the complex dilemmas posed by the mixing of morality and realpolitik is a reminder that democracy is only a means to an end. The lives of the ordinary people should matter more than formal institutions in shaping policy decisions.

Director, Gateway House

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Aung San Suu Kyi, easily the best known Burmese politician in the West, if not the world, was released from her latest episode of house arrest on Saturday, November 13, less than a week after the widely condemned elections in the country. The election date was probably chosen so that she was not only disqualified from participating but also remained incarcerated to pre-empt even a hint of resistance from her ageing, diminished but still courageous supporters.

It would be nice if in a Robinson Crusoe-esque way she could come into a Myanmar well on its way to democracy. Unfortunately, that’s not what will happen. As was expected, the two parties created by, and closely aligned with the armed forces have claimed victory in last week’s deeply flawed elections.

If there was a global sweepstakes for sad countries, Myanmar would be right up there, vying for top place with countries like North Korea – where no democratic winds have blown for 60 years.  In Myanmar, nature’s fury has repeatedly been compounded by man’s folly. Within weeks of the devastation caused by Hurricane Nargis in 2008, the survivors were hustled into a referendum on a new constitution designed to give the military a preponderance of power in perpetuity. Last week’s elections were foreshadowed by another hurricane alert in the western region. North Korea, by contrast has just been promised substantial economic assistance by US President Obama if it would resume negotiations to forego its nuclear weapons.

Last week’s elections in Myanmar were designed to allow the ruling generals to claim they were handing power over to an elected civilian government.  It was the last step in the so-called Roadmap to Democracy announced by the military government in 2003, under pressure from its allies in ASEAN who had welcomed Myanmar into the regional body in 1997 with the professed hope that engagement was better than confrontation.

Subsequently, the leadership was busy holding sham consultations, drafting a new constitution, pushing through the referendum and sponsoring two new political parties filled with serving and retired generals. The new constitution provides for the military commander to nominate 25% of the members of Parliament from among serving officers. On the ground this meant that the military-backed parties needed to win only 26% of seats to have a majority in Parliament.


This scenario was a foregone conclusion since the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) led by General Thein Sein claims to have 18 million members out of an estimated 28 million registered voters and contested almost all the 1163 seats available.

The other military backed party, the National Unity Party (NUP) led by General Tun Yi contested 980 seats. The 35 other parties, allowed after careful vetting to participate in elections to the bicameral national legislature and 14 regional assemblies, did not contest enough seats to be an effective opposition.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) had swept the 1990 elections, the results of which were ignored by the generals. NLD was disbanded after it refused to participate in the elections because its leader, along with over 2000 other prisoners, was not allowed to contest. Some of the members of the former NLD who chose to participate under the banner of the National Democratic Front suffered the same disadvantages as other Opposition parties including high registration fees and prohibitive laws banning large gatherings which precluded any real campaigning. Some of the minorities were prevented from participating, including by the simple expedient of removing up to 1.5 million from the voter rolls and excluding some of the strife-torn areas. Yet the press repeated government reports of 60% voter participation and the USDP claim to have won 80% of the seats contested.

Was there voter intimidation during polling?  According to an Associated Press report while riot police were deployed at some road junctions no soldiers were seen near the balloting sites. However, Yangon-based diplomats from the USA, Britain, France, Germany and Italy took the precaution of rejecting a government offer to take exploratory tours of the polling stations. This would later be helpful in denying that anything at all went right with the election process. These are the same countries whose diplomats often claim to take great risks to monitor elections, uninvited, and are usually the source of all reporting from countries like Myanmar.

Should there be any expectations of change when patently undemocratic rulers choose to hold an election?  Apparently not, at least in Myanmar.

Still, there is hope of a new dynamic since there will be a parliament in existence where none existed before. The examples of Thailand, Philippines and other nations in the region show that parliamentary representation under military rule begins to create a democratic environment, even if slow and halting.

Myanmar’s parliament will be the arena where discussions will be held and at least some decisions will be taken. Many of the old generals have retired even if some of them will find place in the new parliament. Some of the members of the junta are retiring and the day-to-day administration will be in new hands. Differences may develop between the representatives of the armed forces in parliament particularly among those in the SADP and the NUP which, it is reported, are backed by different factions within the armed forces.


Could these differences become like those within the Communist party in China which are often interpreted as a kind of pluralism? Differing economic interests will evolve over time as the economy evolves. This will also be fueled by the sale of state assets currently underway, mostly to those close to the present military leadership.

In an otherwise generally laudatory speech to India’s parliament US President Obama surprised many by his strong castigation of India’s silence on the suffocation of democracy in Myanmar, admonishing that “speaking up for others is not interfering  in the affairs of other countries.  It is staying true to our democratic principles.” The response of the Indian government the next day was unusually acerbic. An unnamed official cited our rationale and some of our concerns and asked bluntly whether we should “act brain dead” when another country (China?) was extraordinarily active in Myanmar.

India would surely like to see a more democratic order emerging in Myanmar. It would also like to see more democracy in many of its other neighbours, such as Pakistan. What about the mess that democracy has made in Nepal? One might also ask about Sri Lanka where a very popularly elected brotherhood is busy railroading minority rights.

So what can be done? In a heartfelt essay in Outlook magazine Nobel Prize winner Professor Amartya Sen  recounted his early memories of the beauty of Myanmar and the cultured gentleness of its people. He has proposed the imposition of smart sanctions “targeted at the interests of the rulers, and the replacement of general restrictions like those on garment exports from Burma- that can hurt the population”. It would be recalled that Aung San Suu Kyi had initially dissuaded tourists from coming to Myanmar, but that too hurt ordinary people, while enriching the powerful, as did the curbs on garment exports. Travel bans and sequestration of funds abroad concern the regime more but we are currently witnessing the removal of precisely such sanctions from select Taliban so they can negotiate with the Americans. How do the Taliban leaders rank alongside the generals from Myanmar? is a question that must be asked.

Professor Sen has also proposed consideration of restraints involving trade in minerals and gems, oil and gas which enrich the leadership but also employ large numbers of people. The problem here is that powerful interests from neighbouring Thailand have been deeply engaged in the gems and timber trade for decades and can’t be dislodged without affecting the precarious hospitality available to refugees at the border.

According to Barun Roy in the Business Standard, 27 companies from 13 countries including Australia, China, France, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand are involved in the fossil fuels sector in Myanmar. He pointed out that while only $315 million worth of investment commitments were received in the entire 2009-10 financial year (April –March) a total of approximately $16 billion have been contracted in the first four months of 2010 alone bringing the cumulative total till July to about $32 billion. Of these almost $25 billion is directed at the oil, gas and power sectors, $2.4billion at the mining sector and over a $1 billion at the hotels and tourism sectors. Even if a fraction of the billions committed actually flow into the political economy of Myanmar, the country will be transformed, for better and for worse.


Economic interests and selectively applied sanctions have muddied the moral debate on human rights to such an extent that most exhortations can be dismissed as cynical rhetoric. As the spokesperson of the Government of India said in response to US President Obama’s accusations, “India has and will always decide its position on the issues keeping in mind national interest, the situation in the region or specific strategic and economic compulsions.”

How else does one overlook the fact that US President Obama himself was fresh from having lifted the ban on the sale of American weapons to China imposed after the Tiananmen Square incidents just weeks earlier? How does one reconcile the differing attitudes of the US to Myanmar and North Korea? One has nuclear weapons and so has to be plied with aid, the other does not so can be threatened with more and more sanctions? What can one say about human rights in Afghanistan or about the non-democrats of the oil-rich Arab world?  Applying the human rights rubric to Myanmar may not therefore be helpful and in fact may exacerbate the isolation of its people.

Even if by some extraordinary consultation there was general agreement as to which countries to target for economic sanctions, when would be the best time, during and after elections or if elections are never held? When they threaten the interests of other countries like Afghanistan or if they do not like Myanmar? What about failed interventions in Somalia, and the problems they spawn years later, such as piracy?

Finally, is past culpability be a factor in deciding what to do today? Who sustains and funds minority groups fighting the government, within uncontested borders, for the past 50 years? Could this be a factor in understanding the paranoia of the regime in Myanmar? We have no consistent answers to the moral dilemmas and little empirical data to show that sanctions ‘work.’

While the great complexity of the situation does not justify the appalling record of the military regime, it does cry out for more nuanced understanding and approaches. Whatever the method, the end objective remains the same – to alleviate the suffering of the Mayanmarese people.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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