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Commentary

Suu Kyi Is Wrong to Support Tin Aye’s By-Election Decision

The National League for Democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, met the Union Election Commission chairman shortly before he announced that the polls expected this year were cancelled.


The by-elections scheduled to be held after the rainy season this year have been cancelled, Union Election Commission (UEC) chairman Tin Aye announced Sunday, citing several reasons. This is hardly surprising. What is unexpected is that Tin Aye met with National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw before he made the announcement in a meeting with political parties in Rangoon.

At their meeting, Suu Kyi reportedly agreed to the cancelation of the by-elections. After Tin Aye announced the decision, NLD spokesman Nyan Win told news agencies that the party agreed with the UEC chairman’s decision, since the NLD is also busy these days. But were Burma’s main opposition party and its leader right to accept the abandonment of the by-election?

I need to explain first how important the 2015 general election is, and the connection between it and the planned 2014 by-elections. Everyone knows the incumbent government and all its institutions, including the Parliament, emerged from the 2010 election, which was rigged by the military by banning the NLD, ethnic parties and other opponents from contesting, as well as through voting irregularities. Therefore, the bodies ruling the country today are not formed out of the people’s wishes. It is fair to say that all of them are a sham.

To take at least a step on the democratic path, Burma needs a Parliament, a government and institutions that reflect the real desires of the people. For that to happen, the 2015 general election is extremely important. Ex-generals and generals understand it well and so does the NLD. But while the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) takes it very seriously, the NLD does not. I will explain this later.

Here is a question: Under which election law will the commission organize the 2015 election? Currently, the 2008 Constitution has yet to be amended, and so the 2015 election is likely to be held according to the 2010 Election Law, which was slightly amended for the 2012 by-elections.

At present, it is not certain whether the election will be held using the proportional representation (PR) system or first-past-the-post voting, practiced in previous elections. What is certain is that the election will be held by the election commission at different levels, mostly formed with ex-service personnel and headed by ex-general Tin Aye. Will they repeat what they did in the 2010 election, or not interfere as they did in the 2012 by-elections? No one can be sure. The 2014 election also could have been a gauge of public support for political parties.

Actually, since March 20 this year, Tin Aye had been promising the by-elections. He had enough time to prepare if he really wanted to do it. But he finally broke the promise on the day he was supposed to announce the date of the by-elections. He gave several reasons: it would coincide with the coming Asean Summit; it would cost 2 billion kyat (more than US$2 million); it would not affect voting in Parliament no matter which party won the vacant seats; the Parliament is busy; and that small political parties faced being disbanded if they did not compete in at least three constituencies.

In fact, none of those reasons hold water. Tin Aye knew in May that voting in the Parliament would not be affected by the by-election results. It does not sound reasonable that he points this out only now. Will by-elections not be held in the future for vacant seats just because their results cannot affect the voting?

The reason that the by-elections would coincide with the Asean Summit is also not valid. They have nothing to do with the summit. Will the 2015 election also be canceled if there happens to be a meeting at that time?

The UEC should also not worry about the small political parties’ fears of being disbanded. There are many political parties that have done nothing for the sake of the people and have won no public support at all. Disbanding them for failure to contest under the law sounds reasonable and it would help sift out functional parties from the many dysfunctional and sham parties, which is a good thing.

But Tin Aye has gone ahead and canceled them. Now, no one can observe how the commission will organize an election. For example, how will it compile the voter list? The list of eligible voters is of crucial importance to an election. Former UEC chairman Thein Soe and his members imposed dishonest rules and regulations to deter political parties from checking the voter list. Now, we will not be able to know what Tin Aye will do in 2015.

Another thing is the new regulations for the electoral campaign. We would have had a chance to check how those new regulations would affect political parties through the by-elections.

Another important question is whether or not international observers will be allowed to monitor the voting process. Tin Aye is supposed to give an answer to that question for the by-elections. We still don’t know. In both the 2010 and 2012 elections, international observers were not allowed to monitor the voting—a cause for concern for holding a free and fair election in 2015.

Another thing is public support could have been gauged for political parties through the by-elections, even if it was only for 35 seats. This is very important as the by-election results would have helped predict the extent of voting irregularities in 2015. And studying the results would be instructive in understanding why the USDP is trying desperately to introduce the PR system. Now all those chances are lost.

Seemingly, Suu Kyi and the NLD, who went through the 2012 by-elections and have not systematically studied 2010 election, think quite highly of themselves. They seem to assume that a landslide victory is theirs no matter how the UEC organizes the election. In fact, there are many possibilities.

The NLD is not in a position to boycott the coming general election if the USDP does something unfair—like adopting PR or amending the Constitution as it desires. If the NLD boycotted the election, the ex-generals are likely to repeat what they did in the 2010 election, running against stooge or sham parties.

Another thing is voting irregularities. It is useless to complain only when we experience voting irregularities in 2015 election. We are likely to see another five years of quasi-civilian government if we can’t prevent voting irregularities before they happen. There are many examples of political parties, not only in Asean but also elsewhere in the world, maintaining their grip on power by rigging elections every four or five years.

For these reasons, Suu Kyi and the NLD’s support for the cancelation of the by-elections is the wrong decision.

Sithu Aung Myint is a Rangoon-based journalist who writes political, economic and social analysis and news articles in Burmese dailies and weeklies.