YANGON, Burma — The country of Burma is gearing up for a historic date. If the military junta does not interfere, then on Nov. 8, 2015, Burma will have its first free and fair election since its independence in 1948.
Nobel Laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi leads the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), against the incumbent military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) administration.
This is not the first time the NLD faced-off against military-backed parties in an election. In 1990, the NLD, under Suu Kyi’s leadership, had a landslide victory, but military junta rejected the results in favor of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).
In 2009, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the junta, and, subsequently, the NLD boycotted the 2010 elections. These elections were condemned by the opposition for being an unfree and unfair handoff of power from the military junta to their handpicked USDP candidate, President Thein Sein.
The past 50 years in Burma have been characterized by instability, poverty, religious and ethnic persecution, suppression of free speech and international human rights abuses. However, in the past five years, President Thein has made some political reforms that show that Burma is on track for their first free and fair election.
These reforms include response to public opinion, amnesty for political prisoners, lifting the ban on unions, allowing peaceful demonstrations, proctoring ceasefire agreements between groups engaged in ethnic conflict, abolishing media censorship and allowing for privately-owned newspapers to circulate.
But why are free and fair elections important?
Free and fair elections are important because with a vote comes a voice. When citizens cannot speak freely or are banned from elections, whole groups of people become disenfranchised, and their rights and interests are ignored. When opposition is suppressed and unions cannot be formed, citizens cannot elect leaders that will work to assuage their grievances.
Take the case of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, which is perhaps the most recent successful transition to free and fair elections.
Under former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, citizens were repressed due to their affiliation with certain Islamic political parties or religious beliefs such as Salafism, a more conservative type of Islam. Many of these people were denied access to higher education and jobs and were forced into exile.
Media was run by Ben Ali’s government, and thus, public speech was restricted. Disillusioned people stopped voting because they knew Ben Ali would stay in power.
This all changed in 2011 when a fed-up population, led by underemployed youth, erupted in massive protests that ended up toppling Ben Ali’s regime. After Ben Ali stepped down and fled to Saudi Arabia, 100 political parties were registered for the first time, and millions of newly enfranchised voters elected the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, to office.
Free and fair elections are also an important step toward economic empowerment. As USAID states, “Critical development efforts cannot succeed without a legitimate and democratically elected government that is responsive and accountable to its citizens.”
Since the Jasmine Revolution, reparations are beginning to be paid by the government to formerly repressed citizens. These reparations, such as subsidized public transportation, public sector jobs, access to education and health services, are extremely important to helping marginalized Tunisians out of the cycle of poverty.
With an election coming up, Burma has a chance to make history with the first free and fair election in more than 50 years. If the NLD party wins, as is predicted in the most recent polls, then without interference Burma can begin its path to national reconciliation.
– Celestina Radogno
Sources: BBC, BBC, International Center for Transitional Justice, Reuters, United States Agency for International Development