Send in the clowns – Burma election Nov. 7 2010 by Anya Palm

25. Oct 2010

The spotlight is brightly lit, while the preparations take place behind stage. The stage itself is empty – for now – but every single seat in the audience is taken. All the VIP-guests are in place – the UN, the ambassadors, the human rights defenders, the experts. But despite a packed crowd, the theater is silent. The focus on the empty stage is so intense that the spectators are not even exhaling. They are waiting. They do not know what the show will be about and that is what makes the waiting so tense. All they know is that it is a performance of utmost importance: The election in Burma on November 7 is the first election in the country in twenty years.


In recent months media has been filled with speculations about it and the main question has been: Is the election a show?  

Because if there is one thing, Burma’s rulers excel in it is making decisions that antagonize the surrounding world and the campaigning period has been a string of such decisions:

Issuing a 13-point campaign regulations decrete in august was the first sign that made the world raise an eyebrow. The regulations included a restriction on “public talks and the distribution of publications with the intention of inciting sedition or tarnishing the image of the State”, a ban on shouting slogans at gatherings and a rule that says that any candidate who wishes to speak in public must seek permission to do so seven days before.  

Recently Burma’s junta announced that foreign media and outside election observers would not be permitted into the country to monitor the election. Thein Soe, the Chairman of the Election Committee, said that “Since we have many experiences in elections, we don’t need experts on this issue.” A fairly baffling choice of words considering the country’s electorial history – it is a bit of stretch to claim that Burma has “many experiences” in that area.

In addition to that, the already existing laws on procedures are equally strict: There is a five-people-limit on public gatherings, immediate and violent punishments for those who criticize the election process and very tight control on the media coverage.

25 percent of the seats are automatically given to the military, which gives the ruling party a massive advantage.  So does the almost-monopoly to speak to their voters.

Today, with little less than two weeks to the election, the world watches with nervous anticipation. With the recent official activity in mind, strong argumentation can be made that the whole thing is a means to appease the international community and to further cement the junta’s position as the leaders of the country. Actually, it is a little bit hard to interpret it in any other way.

So yes. Based on the activities we have seen over the past couple of months, it is a reasonable argument that it IS a show. The more important question is: Can the Burmese people benefit from it anyway?

Because if we can accept the premise that this election is not going to be free and fair – a harsh premise to swallow, admittedly – we have two other scenarios that may be played on that scene.

One scenario is the mentioned: The election helps the junta push everyone else even further away from power and tighten their grip on the country.

Another one is that even a small act of democracy – however fake and staged – is still an act of democracy. One cannot go on stage to say a line without learning the line, in other words.

The first scenario is so unfair and sad that it hurts us all. The aftermath of that is going to have tremendous consequences for the Burmese people- one consequence could be that other governments will start sending refugees home, because their country now has democracy. The other scenario is a light in the dark, a small one, but so, so important.

And this is why everyone is holding their breath, hoping the best and fearing the worst: What IS going to happen on that stage on November 7?

We. don’t. know.