Preparations continue for national elections in Burma this year, the first to be held there in 20 years. Some 38 political parties have been approved to run candidates for parliament, under provisions set by the government's flawed 2008 constitution and electoral laws promulgated earlier this year that impose even harsher restrictions on the country's oppressive political environment.
On first glance, such a choice of candidates would suggest democracy has finally returned to Burma, long ruled by an iron-fisted military regime. That would be wrong, however. The electoral laws and the actions by the regime make clear that the election won't be free, fair or democratic, but rather carefully stage-managed every step of the way. As a result of Burma's restrictive electoral laws, the nation's leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, has chosen not to seek re-registration and won't participate in the elections. Meanwhile, parties seeking registration must pledge to protect the 2008 constitution, which guarantees the military one quarter of the seats in parliament, regardless of the outcome of the vote.
The United States has long urged Burma's leaders to open up its political process to meaningful participation, as well as engage in dialogue with all stakeholders, including the ethnic minorities and the democratic opposition. We respect the difficult decisions Burma’s democratic activists and parties have had to make on how to approach these elections. Given the political restrictions, including limitations on campaigning, assembling, and the press, this is still a flawed electoral process. We believe what will proceed in Burma will not remotely resemble a free, fair or legitimate result.
The U.S. has made this point in direct discussions with Burmese officials, and will continue to do so. So far, their response has been disappointing.
Meanwhile, Burma holds an estimated 2,100 political prisoners, including pro-democracy advocate and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The U.S. continues to call for their immediate and unconditional release and for the Burmese government to allow them to participate in the process of building a more stable, prosperous Burma that respects the rights of all citizens and lives at peace with its neighbors.
In our discussions, Burmese officials have suggested they seek improved dealings with the U.S. If they envision a fundamentally different kind of relationship with our country, fundamental processes must change in theirs.