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Matthew Smith Headshot

Burma's Electoral Authoritarianism

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Three years ago last month was a moment of high hope for Burma's pro-democracy movement. Buddhist monks organized across major cities, towns and villages to lead throngs of citizens, young and old, on peaceful demonstrations in the streets -- an unlawful act in the military-ruled country.

Dubbed the "Saffron Revolution," it was more of a Saffron Reformation. Tens of thousands of protestors bravely demanded political and economic reforms, including the release of all political prisoners, a decrease in fuel costs, and national reconciliation, which is a euphemism for tripartite dialogue between the Burmese junta, the democratic opposition, and the ethnic nationalities.

What they got in return was a violent crackdown by the state. At least 31 people were killed, problematic monks were defrocked by the authorities, and the number of political prisoners has gradually increased by half since then -- there's now approximately 2,200 behind bars, including numerous clergy.

Now, the country is preparing for its first elections in 20 years, ushering in a new form of politics: electoral authoritarianism.

The principle tools of electoral authoritarian regimes are flawed constitutions and feigned elections, crude instruments of un-democracy commonly designed to further entrench the political and economic interests of a select few.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the Friends of Burma -- a ministerial group of key nations at the U.N. -- recently announced that the elections won't be credible unless imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is released. Asian and European leaders reiterated the sentiment this week at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Brussels.

But Ban and Friends missed a very basic point: the elections won't be credible either way. Even people in Burma who plan to fully participate in the elections know that to be true. The electoral laws impose impossible restrictions on political parties, political prisoners are barred from participation, and military intelligence and the regime's proxy parties are busy coercing and intimidating voters nationwide. Burma's new system will be as intolerant of dissent as the last.

This isn't to say the elections don't present certain opportunities.

I've talked to a number of citizens, exiled and not, who view the election as an opportunity to boycott this new brand of authoritarianism, itself a poignant and important political act. These activists are standing up for freedom and exposing the fundamental flaws in the undemocratic process. Their work is particularly important for foreign governments and financial institutions that may be inclined to legitimize undemocratic regimes so long as they hold the almighty election.

I've talked to others who view the elections as an opportunity to push the envelope and work carefully within Burma's socio-political reality, woefully corrupt and repressive as it may be. Some of these individuals view the elections as an opportunity to chip away at the military regime from the inside out, emptying the ocean with the proverbial spoon.

It's not a question as to which strategy is the wiser. Both make sense.

A better question is what can we realistically expect post-election?

For nearly six years, I've documented the impacts of development projects in Burma with my colleagues at EarthRights International, the Shwe Gas Movement, and other organizations. The country is rich in natural gas, minerals, timber, and other lootable resources like precious stones -- all sectors associated with human rights and environmental abuses.

In Burma's new electoral authoritarian system, gas pipelines, mines, and large dams will still be built under the watchful eye of the Army, land will be still confiscated for corporate interests, villagers will be forced to labor around these projects and will still be dispossessed, particularly in the territories of the ethnic nationalities. Access to justice will still be a deep and fundamental problem.

If the international community wants to do its part, it should encourage tripartite dialogue in Burma and support a UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in the country, crimes which have not been unrelated to natural gas pipelines. Investors in companies operating in Burma's energy sector should aggressively engage the companies with clear benchmarks geared toward postponing new projects and mitigating the harms of existing ones. Governments whose national companies are pursuing "development" projects in Burma -- such as India, Thailand, and China -- should re-think their energy security strategies, which are resulting in neither energy nor security for the people on the other end.

If managed responsibly, Burma's natural resources have the potential to play an important part in the country's development. Displaced enthusiasm for the electoral process and the new electoral authoritarian regime is unlikely to help the situation.