In November 2010, the military junta oversaw Burma’s first parliamentary elections since 1990, thoroughly rigging the process to ensure a sweeping victory for the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party. The country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, refused to contest elections it deemed undemocratic and was formally dissolved by the government in September. However, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the party’s longtime leader, was released in mid-November after years under house arrest. The authorities cancelled voting in several border areas populated by ethnic minorities, where the government has limited control and low-intensity civil conflict continued.
Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948. The military has ruled the country since 1962, when General Ne Win led a coup that toppled an elected civilian government. The ruling Revolutionary Council consolidated all legislative, executive, and judicial power and pursued radical socialist and isolationist policies. Burma, once one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia, eventually became one of the most impoverished in the region.
The present junta, led by General Than Shwe, dramatically asserted its power in 1988, when the army opened fire on peaceful, student-led, prodemocracy protesters, killing an estimated 3,000 people. In the aftermath, a younger generation of army commanders created the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country. The SLORC refused to cede power in 1990 after the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 of the 485 parliamentary seats in Burma’s first free elections in three decades. Instead the junta nullified the results and jailed dozens of NLD members, including party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of the next two decades in detention. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.
The SLORC refashioned itself into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997. In late 2000, the government began holding talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, leading to an easing of restrictions on the NLD by mid-2002. However, the party’s revitalization apparently rattled hard-liners within the regime during the first half of 2003. On May 30 of that year, scores of NLD leaders and supporters were killed when SPDC thugs ambushed an NLD motorcade. Arrests and detentions of political activists, journalists, and students followed the attack.
The largest demonstrations in nearly 20 years broke out in cities across the country in August and September 2007, triggered by a 500 percent fuel-price increase. The 88 Generation Students, a group composed of dissidents active in the 1988 protests, were at the forefront of many of the demonstrations. The protest movement expanded to include thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns, who were encouraged by the general populace. Soldiers, riot police, and members of the paramilitary Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and the Swan Arr Shin militia group responded brutally, killing at least 31 people. The crackdown targeted important religious sites and included the public beating, shooting, and arrest of monks, further delegitimizing the regime in the eyes of many Burmese.
Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta on May 2, 2008, causing over 150,000 deaths and severely affecting another 2.4 million people. The SPDC initially attempted to control all foreign and domestic relief efforts, effectively blocking much of the desperately needed aid. In the absence of a government response, local Burmese civil society actors stepped in, and monasteries became distribution points and shelters for survivors. Many Burmese volunteers were detained for trying to deliver aid to cyclone victims, including the popular comedian Zarganar, who was sentenced to 59 years in prison in November 2008.
Despite the severity of the cyclone, the SPDC pushed through a constitutional referendum on May 10, 2008. Burmese political opposition and international human rights groups denounced the new charter, which was approved by an implausibly high margin and would ensure military control of the political system even after elections scheduled for 2010.
In an apparent bid to remove potential obstacles prior to the voting, the authorities continued to arrest and imprison dissidents throughout 2009. More than 300 activists, ranging from political and labor figures to artists and bloggers, received harsh sentences after closed trials, with some prison terms exceeding 100 years.
In March 2010, the SPDC established a hand-picked election commission and announced a series of electoral laws. The USDA, which was ostensibly the regime’s mass-based social welfare organization but regularly served as its thuggish political enforcement arm, transformed itself into the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to contest the elections. In April, Prime Minister Thein Sein and over 20 other top military officials shed their uniforms and registered as civilian candidates with the new party. The USDP ultimately fielded over 1,000 candidates, more than double the candidates of any other party, and ran unopposed in several constituencies. Another progovernment party, the National Unity Party (NUP), fielded 488 candidates for the national legislature alone.
Meanwhile, opposition parties struggled to coordinate their activities and meet tight electoral deadlines, registration fees for candidates, and membership minimums. In a controversial decision, the NLD chose not to reregister to contest the elections, citing the unjust electoral laws. Though the government formally dissolved the party in September, it remained politically active, educating citizens about their right not to vote. A breakaway faction led by Than Nyein, the National Democratic Force (NDF), opted to participate in the balloting but managed to run only 142 candidates. The Shan National Democratic Party, one of the largest of several ethnic-based political parties, contested about 60 seats.
During the campaign, a number of prodemocracy parties complained of intimidation by security forces. The authorities also banned foreign media coverage and independent monitoring of the November 7 elections, and reports of vote-buying and voter intimidation were widespread.
There were serious allegations of voting irregularities on election day, including complaints of military commanders casting ballots on behalf of their subordinates and the appropriation of “advance voting” ballots by the USDP; though parties may contest the results, the fees for lodging a complaint with the election commission are exorbitant. The USDP enjoyed an overwhelming victory with 76.8 percent of the vote, capturing 129 of the 168 elected seats in the Nationalities Assembly and 259 of the 330 elected seats in the People’s Assembly. The USDP also secured 75 percent of the seats in the 14 state and regional assemblies. The NUP won only 3 percent of the seats, and prodemocracy parties captured just a handful of seats, including the NDF’s four seats in the Nationalities Assembly and eight in the People’s Assembly. The Rakhine Nationalities Development Party and the Shan National Democracy Party earned the second highest percentage of seats in the Nationalities Assembly and People’s Assembly, respectively. However, the vote for ethnic minority parties would likely have been higher had voting not been cancelled in several ethnic minority-dominated areas. Reports of voter turnout varied from 35 to 60 percent, though the official count was 70 percent. The SPDC was scheduled to remain in power until the new parliament convened within 90 days of the elections.
Just six days after the elections, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Her first public appearance, where she stressed national reconciliation and promised to work with all prodemocracy parties, drew thousands of supporters.
Also in 2010, the government continued a parallel effort to consolidate its control over the country by incorporating armed ethnic minority groups—with which it had established ceasefire agreements—into a government-led Border Guard Force. Ethnic armies attacked Burmese forces along the Thai border late in the year, forcing over 20,000 Burmese to flee over the border for safety.