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People wait to vote in a mixed Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu neighborhood in Mandalay on Sunday. (Photo: Olivia Harris/Reuters)

People wait to vote in a mixed Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu neighborhood in Mandalay on Sunday. (Photo: Olivia Harris/Reuters)

As Burma Votes, Watchdogs Warn Elections Anything But Fair and Free

Rights groups raise alarm about crackdown on free speech and widespread voter disenfranchisement

Sarah Lazare

As people across Burma (also referred to as Myanmar) vote on Sunday in what is being touted as the country's first free election in 25 years, watchdogs warn that the country's military dictatorship has clamped down on free speech, purged numerous Muslims from the polls, and undermined its own claims of conducting a truly democratic process.

Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people, a persecuted Muslim minority, were wiped from the voting lists, including many who cast ballots in the 2010 and 2012 elections. What's more, numerous Muslim and Rohingya candidates were "disqualified on discriminatory grounds, while authorities have failed to address advocacy of hatred and incitement to discrimination and violence against Muslims," Amnesty International warned earlier this week.

In the month before Sunday's election, at least 19 new "prisoners of conscience" were incarcerated, bringing the total jailed to at least 110—in what Amnesty stated was likely a dramatic under-count.

"There can be no democratic elections without respect for human rights," FORUM-ASIA, a Bangkok-based regional human rights group, declared in a statement released this week.

The organization raised numerous concerns, including: "the passage of four discriminatory laws on race and religion; the rise of Ma Ba Tha (The Patriotic Association of Myanmar), which is described as the radical Buddhist nationalist movement; the political disenfranchisement of the Rohingya community; the increase in threats and intimidation against human rights defenders; and the restrictions of the rights to freedom of expression, freedoms of assembly and of association."

"Freedoms of expression, assembly, and association encompass the essential elements of democracy," said the group's executive director Evelyn Balais-Serrano. "The Government should ensure the respect for these freedoms in order to bring fundamental democratic changes to the country."

Nonetheless, many in Burma expressed hope at being able to cast a ballot in a country where military rule and rigged elections have been the norm for decades.

"This is the first time I have voted," said U Okkar Oo, a betel-nut seller in Yangon, in an interview with the New York Times. "Of course I am excited."

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), appears to have broad support. The daughter of a celebrated anti-colonial leader who was assassinated following independence from Britain, Suu Kyi spent decades under house arrest before being released in 2010. The 70-year-old Nobel Peace laureate went on to win a parliamentary seat in 2012. However, she is prohibited from holding the office of president due to prohibitions written into the country's constitution by the military junta.

But Suu Kyi has vowed that, if the NLD wins a clear majority, she will play a prominent role in her party.

It will be days until the outcome of the election will be known, and the military will hold significant power regardless of the results, as it will automatically retain 25 seats in the parliament—as well as control over the state security and bureaucracy apparatus. Burma's dictatorship has sought to present the election as truly open, with President Thein Sein of the  military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party  declaring last week that the process is "the most meaningful and important in Myanmar history."

The Myanmar Times is maintaining a live blog covering the election and its outcome. Updates and reports are also being posted to Twitter:

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