RANGOON — Representatives from nearly 70 of Burma’s political parties gathered here on Friday to sign an election Code of Conduct (CoC), committing their members to guidelines aimed at ensuring ethical electioneering on polling day and in the lead up to the historic vote later this year.
Chairpersons and other senior leaders from the political parties joined delegates from civil society organizations, foreign embassies, parliamentary committees and international nongovernmental organizations in a signing ceremony presided over by Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC).
Sixty-seven of about 80 officially registered political parties signed onto the document, and more parties and independent candidates are expected to add their signatures in the weeks to come. The CoC is described as a “voluntary instrument,” and violations of its provisions are not subject to legal penalties, in contrast to Burma’s election laws.
“We, the UEC, already have laws pertaining to the elections. This is the moral rules that are agreed among political parties. … They negotiated and drew up [the code] themselves, reached agreement and now, today, they are signing on to follow those rules,” UEC chairman Tin Aye told reporters following the ceremony.
The CoC was drafted by a working committee formed of representatives from six parties and party alliances, including the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Burma’s largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The mandate of the working committee, which in total represented more than 40 political parties, was informed by a set of principles agreed upon by all of the country’s registered political parties in October 2014.
A draft was presented to political parties in March of this year and the UEC reviewed the document the following month, with Friday’s signatories accepting the CoC on May 15.
“If the parties can’t solve [problems] using the CoC or any controversial issues arise, I need only to solve them using the existing law,” Tin Aye said.
The CoC’s provisions are broadly intended to foster a civil and open debate as the parties vie for voters’ favor in the months to come.
Article 4.2 of the code, for example, states: “Criticism of any party or a candidate shall be confined only to the policies and programs of such party or candidate and his/her past performance. … No incorrect or false criticism regarding personal matters unrelated to political responsibilities shall be made of political party leaders, activists and candidates.”
Attendees of Friday’s ceremony welcomed the conduct guidelines.
“I like this CoC,” said Ba Lwin from the Phlone-Sqaw Democratic Party, a Karen party. “There was no such kind of CoC in previous elections and these kinds of commitments are needed. There were some controversies in previous elections. Some candidates and parties made [unethical] criticisms against other parties in the election campaign.”
Nay Min Kyaw, secretary of the National Democratic Force (NDF), said all of the signatories would have input in the formation of a central committee and subcommittees in states and divisions to monitor signatories’ adherence to the CoC.
“After the election date is announced, the central committee, including the parties that signed the CoC, will be formed to monitor and also subcommissions,” he said, adding that all of Burma’s registered political parties had indicated their intention to sign the CoC, though some could not attend Friday’s signing ceremony.
Absent parties can sign at a later date at the Embassy of Switzerland in Rangoon or the UEC branch office in the city, which jointly organized the signing ceremony, he added.
“It is like speed bump on roads,” Nay Min Kyaw said of the CoC. “The speed bumps can reduce accidents. And also now, since we have a CoC, we don’t need to solve everything with the election law. We can solve with the understanding and belief between candidates and parties. But if we can’t solve with that, we just need to resort to the law.”
Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent leader of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, told The Irrawaddy that civil society groups, media and party signatories would be responsible for bringing CoC violations to the attention of the public, since the agreement contains no enforceable legal mechanism.
“The law is binding. [You] must follow it and if not, there will be legal action like a fine, prison terms, or party deregistration, but even the laws are not effective and we didn’t see legal action against those who broke them [in the past],” he said.
“They signed [the CoC] in front of the public, committing to follow it. Although there is no legal consequence if they don’t follow it and break their own promise, the voters [can respond] by not voting for them. So we need to expose [CoC violations] to let the voters know,” he said.
The CoC signing ceremony came just a day after proponents of constitutional reform, including the NLD and many of the ethnic political parties in attendance on Friday, were stymied in their push to change the charter, with Parliament’s military MPs stonewalling what reformers had hoped would be a historic vote.
NLD lawmakers had said on the floor of Parliament in deliberations over the proposed amendments that failure to change certain constitutional provisions would damage the credibility of the 2015 election. NLD central committee member Tun Tun Hein, who signed the CoC for the party, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the previous day’s parliamentary defeat had no bearing on whether the NLD committed to the CoC.