Polls close on peaceful but messy vote

With the opposition National League for Democracy claiming a victory for its leader Aung San Suu Kyi as polls close in Burma, the electoral system showed signs of serious teething pains.

Aung San Suu Kyi won in Kawhmu (Photo-AFP)

On the other hand, no reports of serious violence were reported. In a country known for brutal military rule and violent crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators, a peaceful poll is not an everyday occurrence.

This was only the second time in more than two decades that Burma has held elections. The handful of seats contested in the election –less than ten percent of all seats in parliament – do not reflect the importance of the polls. Western countries like the US and EU are closely watching the vote as a sign of whether they should lift bruising economic sanctions.

Democracy icon Suu Kyi, who spent most of the last two decades under house arrest, said Friday that the run-up to the elections could not be considered free or fair. Critics of the government make similar claims, but other observers say the vote was flawed but remarkably peaceful.

Suu Kyi’s NLD swept elections in 1990 but the results were ignored by a military regime that ruled the country in one guise or another from 1962 until 2010. The government that came to power in elections that year is dominated by acting and former military men and junta supporters. Now Suu Kyi and her party look set to enter parliament, with nationwide elections planned for 2015.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) head Surin Pitsuwan today said the polls seemed to be going “rather well,” and most observers say they are much improved over 2010, where violence, intimidation and fraud were widely reported. But many candidates and voters still complained of irregularities today.

Around the country, in the 45 constituencies up for grabs in polls today, people were frustrated to find their names were absent from electoral rolls. Other would-be voters found their ballots covered with wax, which could be wiped away to nullify their votes. And claims were made against both opposition and ruling parties, saying they campaigned today in front of polling stations in violation of election law.

The stories of irregularities ranged from the coast of the Taninthary Peninsula to the hills of Shan State, but there were no reports of serious violence or intimidation.

Five thousand eligible voters in polling stations all over Launglon and Kyunsu townships in the Tanintharyi Region missed their chance to vote when they discovered their names were missing from voter lists, said National League for Democracy candidates Aung Soe and Tin Tin Yi, who told Burma Elections 2012 this evening that they were running ahead in their constituencies.

In the Shan State, Election officials refused to allow more than 300 people to vote in Kone Kauk village tract in Hseni Township, saying their names were missing from the list.

“Some voters want to vote but as their names are missing in the voter list, they were not able to vote today. We are watching it closely,” said Sai Win Khaing from the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, who was elected to the People’s Assembly in 2010 elections.

Election commissions around Burma, a country in which elections have long been a rarity, reportedly dusted off the 2010 voter rolls without updating them. Opposition parties, especially the NLD, challenged the lists and in many cases the lists were changed several times. But on voting day, many errors were still reported.

In the Irrawaddy Region in lower Burma, 403 voters were refused the vote in Ma Let To village tract in Maubin Township, said Zaw Yan, a member of the 88 Generation network, a group of former political prisoners and other activists who are acting as poll watchdogs this year.

In Taungoo in upper Burma, more than 100 people gathered outside a polling station when they found their names were missing from voter lists. Another 40 or so were outside another station for the same reason, a township election commission official told the Myanmar Times.

Sai Win Khaing in the Shan State blamed voter ignorance and election officials’ failure to educate voters for the problem.

“It is the result of mistakes by voters, election commissions and political parties,” he said.

Many people reportedly did not know they could check voting lists weeks ago and challenge them if they were eligible yet still missing from the lists.

On the other hand, the fact that dead people kept showing up on new lists did not breed great confidence in the election system.

“Our party has to console them [the voters] by saying ‘let’s vote in next election’. We are cooperating with the township commission, but according to rules and regulations, it is impossible to add their names to the lists now,” said Sai Win Khaing.

Rumors circulated in recent days that some polling stations would be closed in Hseni Township because of bomb blasts last week, but polling stations were opened for voting today. No one was injured in the blasts.
It wasn’t clear at the time of writing, however, whether voting was taking place in Tangayan Township, the site of occasional clashes between the army and Shan fighters.

“People in Hseni are voting peacefully. But we cannot contact [the election commission] in Tangyan Township. We haven’t heard anything from them yet,” said Tin Maung Shwe, chairman of Lashio district election commission.

Communications infrastructure in Burma is extremely primitive.

In related news, Sai Win Khaing said that compared to the intimidations and election fraud of the 2010 elections, the 2012 by-elections are free and fair.

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