The Burmese people themselves are divided on the issue of the election’s significance in the country’s future. The National League of Democracy (NLD), headed by detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, itself opted to boycott the elections, viewing it as the junta’s attempt to further legitimize its grip on government in the eyes of the outside world. A faction, calling itself the National Democratic Front (NDF), broke away from the NLD and decided to contest the elections, the first in two decades.
Nonetheless, academic Maung Zarni captured what is apparently the prevailing sentiment inside the country when he said in a recent forum sponsored by SEAPA that more than the election itself, what is important are the conditions under which this supposed democratic exercise is to be held.
For one, thousands of political prisoners are languishing in jails in the country, among them 15 journalists and bloggers.
“Fear and fear”
As interest in the election among various sectors outside of the country increases, the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) noted that what is prevailing inside Burma is more “fear and fear” rather than “free and fair” as seen by the steps the military regime has taken in recent months.
The government started with the political parties, banning at least three opposition parties and imposing regulations that are meant to further restrict the chances of the opposition to win enough seats in the more than 1,100-seat parliament.
The Union Election Commission also suspended elections in more than 3,300 villages in Kayin, Kachin, Kayah, Shan and Mon states, as “they are in no position to host free and fair elections”.
All TV and radio outlets in the country are run by the State. Opposition political parties can only go on air to broadcast their campaign spiel for just 15 minutes for the entire election campaign period.
Independent opposition candidates, on the other hand, deprived of access to media, are forced to roam the streets and distribute flyers in the neighborhoods.
As the government also owns and operates print publications, the opposition can only rely on some 200 privately-operated journals for coverage, according to Mizzima News Agency. That is, if such articles get past the Censor Board.
As one editor of a journal said, news stories that put in a bad light the junta and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—the political party that the regime fielded, are automatically censored by the government.
Also, despite this media space, economics also play a part as only a handful of the local population can afford to buy these publications.
New media, which played a major part in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, offer a window, but these too have come under heavy watch by the junta, which learned its lessons from the episode three years ago when news and images of protesting monks found their way out of Rangoon largely through the Internet.
In September, three of the major Burmese exiled media outlets—the Thailand-based magazine ‘Irrawaddy,’ the India-based Mizzima News Agency, and DVB in Norway—suffered from Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks wherein a huge volume of external communication requests swamped the site’s servers, resulting in their shutting down. For several days, the three news offices’ websites were inaccessible.
Mizzima said this occurred on the third anniversary of the Saffron Revolution. Observers believed this is a dress rehearsal for the junta’s plan to isolate the country from cyberspace.
A week ago, there were reports of the Internet connection in Rangoon slowing down. The connection currently is intermittent. DVB reported that many cyber cafes have closed down in Rangoon.
No outsiders allowed
Not only does the government want to shut down the Internet, but the entry of foreign observers and journalists too.
The Election Commission has announced that the government will not allow any foreign election observers or international media into the country for the elections. There is no need for overseas journalists and foreign observers to come to Burma since there are already foreign diplomats, representatives from UN organizations and staff of the foreign news agencies who are already based in Burma, according to the Commission chairman Thein Soe.
This comes despite strong calls from members of ASEAN—especially Indonesia and the Philippines—for Burma to ensure more transparent elections.
The Burmese media, meanwhile, both inside and exiled, will come out in full force to cover the political exercise, just as the international media are expected to keep a close watch.
‘Irrawaddy’ is fielding some 20 reporters and correspondents both inside and outside Burma to cover the elections, according to its managing editor Kyaw Zwa Moe. Other exiled news agencies are equally prepared and equipped to cover the polls. They are deploying trained citizens journalists in order to better monitor and document this significant event.
As the military regime continues to keep Burma in a lockdown mode on the eve of election, marginalizing not only the opposition but also the voters by depriving them of access to relevant news and information, the question that is asked is why does the junta even bother to hold the elections at all.
Quite apt is DVB’s quote from a Burmese taxi driver: “This is not my election; this is the military’s election.”
SEAPA is the only regional organization with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow if Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ); the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association (TJA); and the network’s Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ).