Burmese Election Must Show Commitment to Democracy

‘So it’s clear that Burma faces substantial challenges. From the undemocratic elements in Burma’s constitution, to the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya, to troubling incidents regarding the curtailment of citizens’ basic rights.’

WASHINGTON, D.C.U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the following remarks on the Senate floor today regarding democratic elections in Burma:

“On November 8th, just a few weeks away, the people of Burma will hold national elections. It promises to be a momentous event for a country many of us have studied and followed for a very long time. I say momentous for two reasons.

“First, for Burma’s citizens, or for many of them at least, this election represents a chance to finally choose their own leaders — a rare occurrence in recent Burmese history. That’s significant in itself. But there’s another reason these elections are so important, because the manner in which they are conducted will serve as a key indicator of the progress of reform in Burma.


“There are some encouraging signs that the election will be freer and fairer than what we’ve seen in the past. Unlike recent Burmese elections, for example, international election observers have been permitted into the country. That’s an important departure from the past. It’s encouraging.

“At the same time, there have been troubling signs during the election cycle too.

“Allow me to share a few of them with you now.

“First, the Constitution was not amended prior to the election.

“As many of my colleagues will recall, the Burmese Constitution unreasonably restricts who can be a candidate for president, a hardly-subtle attempt to bar the country’s most popular opposition figure from even standing for office. That’s worrying enough. But the Constitution goes even further, ensuring an effective military veto over constitutional change — over, for instance, amendments about who can run for the presidency — by requiring more than three-fourths parliamentary support in a legislature where the constitution also reserves one-fourth of seats for the military.

“Allowing appropriate constitutional changes to pass through parliament would have represented a tangible demonstration of the Burmese government’s commitment to both political reform and to a freer and fairer election this November. But when the measures were put to a vote on June 25, the government’s allies exercised the very undemocratic power the constitution grants them to stymie the effort.

“What kind of messages do actions like these send?

“They bring the Burmese government’s continued commitment to democracy into question.

“They also raise fundamental questions about the balloting this fall — increasing the prospect of an election being perceived as something other than the will of the people, even if its actual conduct proves to be free and fair.

“It’s hard to see how that’s in anyone’s interests.

“The second deeply troubling consideration is the apparent widespread, if not universal, disenfranchisement of the Rohingya population. For all the ill-treatment the Rohingya have had to endure in their history, at least they had once been able to vote and run for office in Burma. They voted and fielded candidates for office in both the 2010 election and in the 1990 election.

“No more.

“Reports indicate that otherwise eligible Rohingya — more than half a million of them — have been systematically deprived of the right to vote and the right to stand for election.

“That poses another serious challenge to next month’s elections being seen as free and fair. And there’s another challenge I would note as well.

“Finally, while media activity in Burma is far more open than it was before 2010, there have been troubling signs that indicate a recent and worrying backslide.

“In fact, just a few days ago, news circulated of individuals being arrested for Facebook postings.

“These are disturbing reports.

“Campaigns can only be conducted when a free exchange of ideas is permitted. Arresting citizens for free expression runs directly counter to that idea. It’s at odds with notions of free speech and democracy, and it seems designed to send chilling signals to the Burmese people.


“So it’s clear that Burma faces substantial challenges.

“From the undemocratic elements in Burma’s constitution, to the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya, to troubling incidents regarding the curtailment of citizens’ basic rights.

“These challenges are significant. They need to be addressed.

“At the same time, we should not allow these things to completely overshadow what Burma has accomplished. It’s come a long way in recent years. There are many positive things to be built upon as well.

“In short, there’s still hope for Burma’s upcoming election.

“Thein Sein’s government has an opportunity to make these last few weeks of campaigning as free and fair as possible. The Burmese government can still hold an election that — despite the troubling things I mentioned — can still be embraced by Burmese citizens and the international community alike.

“But that will mean ensuring these final weeks of campaigning are as free and fair as possible.

“That will mean ensuring freedom of expression is protected.

“These are the kinds of minimum goals that Burmese officials must strive towards in the final weeks of the campaign season.

“If the Burmese government gets this right — if it ensures as free and fair an election as possible, with results accepted by the competing parties, the government and the military — that would go a long way toward reassuring Burma’s friends around the globe that it remains committed to political reform, and progress in the bilateral relationship. Indeed, both the government and the military have committed to standing by the election results.

“But let me be clear.

“While I have always approached this relationship — and the role of sanctions — realistically, this election is a test that the government must pass. Simply holding an election without mass casualties or violence, while vitally important, isn’t good enough.

“As I stated on the Senate floor earlier this year, if we end up with an election not accepted by the Burmese people as reflecting their will, it will make further normalization of relations — at least as it concerns the legislative branch of our government — much more difficult.

“It would likely hinder further enhancement of U.S. Burma economic ties and military-to-military relations.

“It would likely erode confidence in Burma’s reform efforts.

“It would also likely make it more difficult for the executive branch to include Burma in the Generalized System of Preferences program, or to enhance political-military relations.

“Those of us who follow Burma want the country to succeed. We want to see the government carry out an election that’s as free and fair an election as possible. We’re prepared to continue doing what we can to encourage more positive change in that country. And we’ll be realistic about what is possible.

“As I just mentioned, that’s the kind of approach I’ve always tried to take — a hopeful but realistic one — when it comes to this relationship. Not just on the role of sanctions, but also on possible steps toward closer relations and on the individual programs and policies that would aid Burma’s development and capabilities.

“So we’re hoping the Burmese government gets this right.

“We’re hoping the Burmese people continue moving along the path of greater freedom and greater reform.

“But whatever the result, Burmese government officials should be assured that Burma’s partners in the United States and in the international community will be watching intently to see what happens in the coming weeks, with a realistic assessment in what Burma can achieve.”

Related Issues: Burma