The Globe and Mail Talks to IRI’s Steve Cima about Burma’s Elections

Challenges lie ahead for Myanmar’s democracy as election planning begins
The Globe and Mail
By Nathan Vanderklippe

RANGOON, MYANMAR — Delima Saraghi stands at the front of a Rangoon hotel conference room and looks over the women gathered to learn how to run an election in Myanmar.

“I want to remind you again of your goal in a campaign – why you even enter the election, why you even want to be a candidate. Which is to … ?”

She bends her ear toward the members of 41 political parties who have come from across the country, some riding buses for nearly a day, to prepare for an election expected by early November; it will be a pivotal moment in the development of a nascent democracy.

When no one answers her question, she does it herself. “To win!” she says. To emphasize the point, she scribbles “Win” in big letters on a flip chart.

Then she sketches how that’s done: research, fundraising, outreach and a vote-counting plan. Use census data, use voter records, says Ms. Saragih, a trainer with the International Republican Institute, a United Nations-partnered organization which is running hundreds of such seminars to teach the basics of running a political campaign. “Don’t make assumptions. An election is about numbers,” she says.

As it faces the first broadly contested ballot since 1990 – an election whose results were then tossed out by the army – Myanmar’s military-heavy government has promised to run a proper vote. “We will try to hold free and fair elections as best we can,” Tin Aye, the chairman of the Union Election Commission, said in February.

But nothing will be easy. And even before the election is called, questions are already emerging over whether the country’s leadership has either the will or the wherewithal to mount an election that will stand up to intense scrutiny. Since recent political reforms, this will be the first general election to be contested by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.

The problems run far deeper than campaign strategy.

Take Tin Aye, a former lieutenant-general surrounded by men of similar stripes stacked onto the Union Election Commission. Local media have accused them of, together, planning to “cheat the game,” a belief bolstered by Tin Aye’s own comments comparing by-election campaign rallies in 2012 to an anti-government uprising.

The country faces immense practical concerns over running an election at 47,000 polling stations across a Texas-sized country where electricity remains sparse and some villages are accessible only by foot. (By comparison, the United States had fewer than 120,000 polling places in the last federal election.) There is no way international observers in Myanmar can be in all of those places; it will be a sufficiently daunting challenge merely to train local teachers and civil servants to run each of them. There will be 10 people running each polling station, meaning nearly 1 per cent of the population will need training that has yet to begin.

The best guess is that roughly 6,000 domestic independent observers will be ready in time for the vote, enough to monitor just one in eight polling stations.

Already, observers worry that some minority groups will be barred from voting, and funding issues have begun to arise. Myanmar hasn’t earmarked enough money to affix numbered seals to ballot boxes, or to buy the proper indelible ink to mark the fingers of those who have voted. (It has budgeted $136,000 – the actual cost is upwards of $2-million.)

Seven months before the expected November election date, it’s not even clear yet what kind of election it will be, with legislators still discussing proportional representation for the legislature’s upper house. That has delayed the writing of election manuals, since it’s not yet clear how votes should be counted. And despite the likelihood that armed conflict will interfere with some voting in rural areas racked by fighting and illegal trade in opium and jade, Myanmar has no transparent system for deciding when and how to call off elections in places too dangerous for ballots.

To those watching, it’s already clear this will be far from a perfect election.

“They’ve made enormous progress given where they started. But both technically and in terms of their institutional independence, they still have a long way to go – and less and less time all the time,” said Richard Nuccio, resident senior country director for the National Democratic Institute.

Stephen Cima, who leads Myanmar operations for the International Republican Institute, adds: “It’s not this watershed moment that’s going to bring democracy.”

Myanmar was until recently ruled by a military dictatorship that jailed people for penning democracy poems and singing anti-military songs. The military remains in control, with 25 per cent of legislature seats occupied by uniformed officers, and the ruling party made up largely of ex-army figures.

What may be more surprising is the cautious hope beginning to emerge. Ms. Suu Kyi herself has said she expects the election to be free – if not fair, given the military’s priority role in the constitution.

And an appetite for democracy is building. Mr. Cima’s organization, along with a handful of other pro-democracy groups funded by the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Denmark and Switzerland, initially printed 5,000 copies of a template campaign manual. It was gone within weeks. Mr. Cima is now printing 10,000 more. In other countries, seminars on how to campaign might draw 25 or 30 people. In Myanmar, they regularly draw 100.

“As far as democracy promotion, this is the place to be, for sure. It’s an exciting time, it’s a historic election,” Mr. Cima said. There will doubtless be problems. But at this point, “my sense is that there’s not a systematic plan in place to change the results of the election,” he said.

Indeed, the government has shown signs of wanting to do things right. The election commission recently sought to balance its power structure by adding commissioners from ethnic minority groups; its chairman has sat for day-long meetings with civil-society groups, and accepted large numbers of their recommendations.

In Rangoon, minivans are already driving slow loops with megaphones blaring instructions on how to look up draft voter’s lists. “If your name is not there, you can complain,” the recorded message says. It is followed by a song: “Let’s vote, let’s vote for our country!”

In the 2010 elections, voters’ lists were assembled from handwritten township records. Now, they’re being digitized – some 30 million entries in all, an effort that is half-way done. People across the country will be given two chances to check their accuracy before the election.

Then there are the candidates themselves, people like 33-year-old Lwe Nan Moe, the daughter of a local leader from northern Shan state, one of the country’s most remote and violent regions. She was born while her mother was on the run and she doesn’t know her own birthday or birthplace. In some of the villages near where she grew up, only one out of 100 people has graduated high school. Some in the older generation do not how to wield a ballpoint pen to make a check mark on paper.

But starting early this year, Lwe Nan Moe began to go village to village to teach the basics of voting. She belongs to an ethnic Ta’ang party, whose logo is a green tea leaf. She tells people, “You are Ta’ang, you have to vote for green tea.”

Her enthusiasm is partially tempered by worry, because her village is often surrounded by fighting that could easily mar vote-casting.

But, nonetheless, she sees in democracy an avenue for change. Under the incumbent MP, who is Lwe Nan Moe’s father, the government has provided new teachers and nurses to some local villages. She tells people “if you want more and better than this, you have to vote for our party.”

And she sees in democracy other potential, too – including a platform for a woman to gain power, and alter values. “In our ethnic group, people think men are very important, that men are the same as a god,” she said. “So I want to change their stupid mind.”

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