While some in the opposition bloc within Burma and the exile community believe boycotting the upcoming Elections (November 7) to be a moral imperative, no one seems to rationalize why they urge Burma’s people to withhold their vote. The real question underlying the motive is this: is the suggested boycott an ethical decision or a pragmatic approach?
If it is the former, I agree: boycotting the “sham elections” (the phrase has stuck for a reason) orchestrated and manipulated by the ruling military generals (or newly formed civilian, pro-regime parties) would be taking the moral high ground. At some distant point in time, history may indeed show that those boycotters who refused to yield to the regime’s “roadmap to disciplined democracy” made a significant contribution to real democratic reform in Burma.
I’m not sure, however, that a boycott is a pragmatic approach to the election process at this time, no matter the devastatingly slim “opportunity” available for real political change. Consider a couple other dictatorial elections (shams that stuck) from recent history:
1. Venezuela 2005: As voters across Venezuela last week lined up for legislative elections, the opposition parties remained unsure if they could acquire a third of seats in the National Assembly. They hope to contest Chávez in the 2012 presidential elections by now winning a majority popular vote. They suffered a big setback in 2005 legislative elections when they chose to boycott the process, handing Chávez total domination of National Assembly seats. Since that calculated misadventure, the international community, while perhaps sympathizing, has refrained from backing any opposition parties within Venezuela. A top importer of oil to the US, the Senate has not chosen to impose sanctions on Venezuela. And the dance goes on, though now the opposition is participating in elections, aiming for a slow and deliberate act of political rebalancing.
2. Iran 2009: Global observers held their breath in June of 2009 in the highly contested election run-up, with Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the main opposition candidate, running against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When peaceful protests around the election were met with bloody crackdown, Ahmadinejad quickly claimed a resounding electoral victory and resumed office, stifling opposition with arbitrary detention, torture, and media crackdown. The world braced itself during the turmoil, hoping for a shift in political power, and yet none came. The US still maintains stiff sanctions against the country, but to no effect: Ahmadinejad has held onto power, ruthlessly suppressed human rights, and continued with aggressively defiant foreign policy tactics. Over a year since the fraudulent election, conditions don’t appear poised to change any time soon.
If the Burmese still think a boycott is in order, they may well consider the likely reaction of the international and regional powers. ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan seems ready to approve whatever results come of the election, and the UN has been slow to arrive at a unified position on the November elections. While the US has long maintained sanctions against authoritarian Burma’s government, the country’s junta has refused to budge, while allying itself with China and North Korea.
Nothing short of a complete democratic revolution led by a combination of opposition leader Daw Aung Suu Kyi and/or the monks of 2007’s Saffron Revolution would bring the junta to its knees, and Daw Suu Kyi’s release date is set for the week after elections. The nature of her freedom or transfer remains to be seen, and the community of monk leaders largely lives in exile across the Thai border at this point, where mobilization vis-à-vis the inside is weaker and less coordinated. While political change will not come overnight, let us carefully consider the ramifications of encouraging Burma’s citizens to boycott their first elections in twenty years.