With Burma gearing up for a crucial general election in November, a coalition of six countries and the European Union released a statement this week affirming their support for free and fair polls. Democracy proponents hope the vote will be the first credible nationwide election in decades, but with the country beset by challenges and governed under a highly contentious, military-drafted Constitution, the outcome appears hardly certain.
Shortly after its release, The Irrawaddy spoke with British Ambassador to Burma Andrew Patrick about why his country is a signatory to the statement, what the coalition wants to see play out this year and obstacles to achieving those goals.
How is the UK government assisting with election preparations?
First of all let me say this is a joint statement so what I say is just representing the UK and I can’t speak for the others.
The UK has been doing two main things. We have been supporting an organization called IFES [International Foundation for Electoral Systems], which is a very well-known elections NGO and works all over the world. Their job has been to support the [Union] Election Commission [UEC], so that the commission has the technical skills to make this a credible election.
The second part of what we’re doing is building capacity among civil society organizations. In particular so that they can observe the election—that’s obviously really important—because even though we hope there will be a large number of foreign observers, it’s only going to be a small number of people compared to the size of the country, so the main job is for local civil society.
When he visited Burma in November, US President Barack Obama listed the holding of free and fair elections on time as among Washington’s top priorities vis-à-vis the reform process. Does the UK share this position?
Yes, I think everybody who signed this statement shares it. My sense is that everybody in this country shares that view. Or at least, the president has said that, clearly Parliament thinks that, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi thinks that holding credible elections this year is an absolutely vital step in the reform process.
Are you confident in the government’s logistical capacity to conduct this election up to international standards?
If things go well, this is the first time that this country will have held a credible election, a full national election, since 1960, so there are a lot of challenges. One of the reasons we’re supporting the election commission is to try and address those challenges. Of course, this is the first proper election in 50 years—it’s not going to be completely perfect, but we think it can be credible.
What are some of the biggest challenges?
You’ve pointed to some of the logistical challenges: Some parts of this country are very remote. There are just very basic challenges about holding a poll there.
One of the big things that I hear talked about a lot is the issue of advanced voting. This is the idea that the 2010 elections were not very credible because advanced voting was used to change the result. That’s a very common view. I wasn’t here in 2010 but a lot of people say that, and I think one of the things we need to do is try and work together to reassure people that that issue isn’t going to arise this time around.
Are you taking a position on whether advanced voting should be allowed?
Advanced voting is a common part of elections, so it’s not about whether it should happen, it’s about how it happens and how you make sure that people are confident it’s not being misused.
Maybe I should say something that I didn’t say at the beginning, which is the purpose of the statement, and why we are releasing this today. There are two reasons, speaking as the UK. One is that a lot of people are interested in what we’re doing. This tries to set out in full what we’re doing.
The second reason, which I think is really important, is that elections are not just about polling day. A credible election is about the whole period running up to polling day, so this statement is saying that we’re already engaged. We’re looking at it as the whole process right up to polling day.
Do you have any concerns about the impartiality of the UEC and in particular its chairman Tin Aye, given his previous affiliation with the ruling USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party] and some questionable statements he’s made recently?
I’ve heard people talking about this issue. I’ve seen him several times and we have people who are working with the commissioner on a very regular basis. He’s said that he’s determined to hold credible elections. And actually, the things that he’s done so far, if you look at the steps he’s taken in terms of the [electoral] rules and so on, he’s been doing the things that we would welcome. The rules that he’s been putting out, broadly speaking, are the kind of things you’d want if you want a credible election. And he’s working very closely with this international NGO [IFES], he’s working more closely with Burmese civil society, which is really important.
It’s six months to go, so we’re not assuming anything and things may change, but so far we think it’s worth working with the election commission. We think together we can support them to help deliver the credible election that they say they want to have.
But do you understand the concerns that some people have about the commissioner?
Some of the statements that he’s made obviously we wouldn’t agree with. A lot of people in this country don’t agree with some of the things he’s said, but I think we need to look at what the commissioner’s done as well, which is why I emphasized that what he has done in terms of rules has been good.
At the moment, as far as I can see, the main political parties are not calling for him to leave. They seem to be working with the UEC, including the NLD [National League for Democracy]. They’re the contestants in this election, so they’re the people we have to listen to in terms of whether the UEC is a credible organization.
Does the UK have a position on whether so-called ‘white card holders’ should be granted suffrage?
This is a very controversial issue and actually it’s not, I think, about voting. That’s a sort of subset of a much bigger issue. The bigger issue is that we think there are people in this country who should be citizens and do not have that right to citizenship. And that’s a very big issue in Rakhine [Arakan State], which I’ve talked to your colleagues about at length in various interviews.
One aspect of that is that if you don’t have citizenship, it’s usually the case that you can’t vote. So it’s absolutely the case that people should have citizenship and should have the right to vote. But it’s not an election issue, it’s a much bigger issue in which the voting thing is one part.
The Constitution allows the military to seize power and possibly suspend elections in states of emergency. Are you concerned by the ease with which this could take place, especially given volatility in ethnic regions and the potential for other domestic political instability?
From my conversations with the military, they are assuring us that they intend to support the holding of elections, but I can understand why people are very worried about that issue. Clearly if that were to happen, that would be the end of the reform process as we know it, and all of the great things that have happened over the last three years, including the different relationship that we’re all able to have with Burma, all of that would change if there was a military coup. And I don’t think that many people are talking about that as something that’s very likely to happen.
The history of this country is very complicated so you can’t rule anything out, but what we’re concentrating on is supporting the government, the UEC, the political parties, so that we can have a credible election.
How would the relationship between the UK and Burma change in the event that elections are postponed, or are held but not considered credible?
That’s a really broad spectrum of possible outcomes. In the worst case scenario we would be back in a similar situation to where we were three or four years ago, before the reforms started. But I really don’t want to focus on that because I think we have an opportunity to have a credible election, to move forward, to continue the economic and democratic growth of this country. We don’t really want to focus on the bad scenarios. And my impression is that the political parties, the people in government, the UEC, they’re focused on having a credible election and they’re not focused on moving backwards.
The NLD has said that it is not yet committed to participating in the election. How important is it that Burma’s biggest opposition party contest the polls?
We’ll have to see what they say. I think it is important for credible elections that people have a choice. But we’ll have to see where we are in three or four months’ time. At least we have got the groundwork now so that the technical side of it will be in place.
What is your position on Article 59[f] of the Constitution, which bars Suu Kyi from the presidency?
We’ve made our position very clear on that issue. We think that the people of this country should have the chance to have the president that they want without arbitrary exclusions. That’s a debate that’s still ongoing and I think it’s related to the election debate but it’s not exactly the same. And frankly, today’s statement is talking about other things, so I’d rather you not write about the constitutional thing, which we’ve talked about many times before. This is more about the credibility of the election process up to Election Day. The 59[f] stuff arises after that, of course.
Sure, but is it not related?
Is that one barometer by which you would gauge the election’s credibility?
Well, I think it’s about the legitimacy of the government. The vote has to be credible, and then people have to feel that the government that comes out of it is a legitimate government. And it seems to me it’s in that second part that this issue of 59[f] arises. If you have a situation where they believe they voted for one government and they got something else, then obviously that’s a problem.