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Friday, October 15, 2010

Burma's 2010 Election Campaign: Issues for Congress

Michael F. Martin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Burma is to hold its first parliamentary elections in 20 years on November 7, 2010. The polls raise questions about U.S. policy towards the Burmese regime, coming in the context of two decades of largely isolationist U.S. policy towards Burma. Some argue that these elections, even if far from free and fair, offer a limited opportunity for political change, even if evolutionary. Others believe that the ruling junta's restrictions on electoral activity thus far demonstrate that it has little interest in democracy or in loosening its repressive policies. These considerations weigh deeply in policy debates over sanctions and engagement with the regime—debates in which Congress has had a strong voice over the past two decades.

In 1990, the last time nationwide parliamentary elections were held in Burma, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by prominent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, won a stunning and unexpected victory. The junta's subsequent refusal to seat the newly elected parliament and its arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi were widely condemned internationally, and led to the imposition of numerous U.S. and international sanctions against the regime. This time, the circumstances surrounding the elections have been controversial from the start. The Obama Administration has repeatedly stated that it does not foresee the elections being free and fair, and the outcome will not be a genuine reflection of the will of the people of Burma. Some members of Congress have also expressed skepticism that Burma's impending elections will be a true expression of democracy.

Most observers feel that by various means and methods, the ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the Union Election Commission (UEC) are conspiring to ensure that the pro-junta political parties will win most of the 1,163 seats at stake. Preliminary information on the number of proposed candidates submitted by each of the political parties indicate that it would take a virtual election sweep by their candidates for the opposition parties to win a majority. The opposition parties are particularly weak in many of the state and regional parliamentary elections; an exception is in states where ethnic minorities are a large percentage of the population. Thus, it is more likely that the pro-junta parties will win a majority of the seats on November 7.

The UEC has approved 37 parties to participate in the elections, but on September 14 it announced that several political parties—including Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD—were officially dissolved. The formal campaign period for the parliamentary elections began on September 24, 2010. There have been accusations of irregularities in the campaign process, including decisions by the UEC to reject the broadcasting of some party statements, undue restrictions on campaign rallies, and intimidation of opposition party members. The SPDC has also arrested Buddhist monks and students advocating boycotting the elections.

The Obama Administration reportedly is considering the imposition of additional sanctions on Burma, in part because of the manner in which the SPDC is conducting the election. The Administration is also backing calls for the creation of a U.N. Commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. Ten other nations have also backed the creation of the U.N. Commission.

Under current federal law, President Obama has the authority to impose certain types of financial sanctions without seeking approval from Congress. However, he must inform Congress if and when he imposes new sanctions. 

Date of Report: October 6, 2010
Number of Pages: 11
Order Number: R41447
Price: $29.95

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