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Rights abuses surge ahead of historic election

Reporters are not allowed to photograph or film polling booths
Reporters are not allowed to photograph or film polling booths

Mizzima News

On 7 November, the Burmese people will go to nationwide polls for the first time in 20 years. But contesting political parties will have seldom been seen or heard of in the state media. Independent websites have already been censored, and foreign journalists will not be allowed to cover the spectacle. Thirty-three IFEX members, including Mizzima News and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), are lobbying the governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting this week in Hanoi to put pressure on Burma to respect free expression - essential if the elections are to be seen as credible, they say.

The IFEX members reiterated the need for the election process to be more inclusive, participatory and transparent. But according to Mizzima and SEAPA, rights abuses by the ruling junta have surged in Burma ahead of the polls.

For instance, candidates have not been given equal access to the media to voice their platforms. Democratic Party (Myanmar), the Union of Myanmar Federation of National Politics and the 88 Generation Student Youths (Union of Myanmar) were denied access to the state-controlled media because of "improper" campaign messages. Other parties have complained about having their broadcasts or articles censored.

Amid the heavy censorship, the local independent media have been able to exercise relative fairness in reporting ahead of the election, says Mizzima. But no media is allowed to publish or broadcast election news that might "undermine the state."

The restriction applies to stories about the 1990 general elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landside. The junta refused to recognise the results and has kept Suu Kyi locked away in prison or under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years. Her current house arrest expires on 13 November. NLD has denounced the election as unfair and undemocratic and is boycotting it, leaving the race without a strong opposition.

Foreign journalists are also being denied access. The Election Commission said there was no need to grant visas for foreign reporters because there are local reporters in the country who work for foreign media. The 33 IFEX members are calling on ASEAN countries to put pressure on the Burmese authorities to allow the media and international observers into Burma.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is also using the ASEAN meeting to engage with the Burmese authorities, said, "This is essentially a sham election. We have long called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the permitting of legitimate opposition in Burma, and we want the international community to retain as much pressure as possible on the regime which still does not respect anything that resembles democracy or a properly open election."

The repression of freedom of expression has been heavy for online media. Mizzima, Thailand-based magazine "The Irrawaddy," and Oslo-based "Democratic Voice of Burma", had their website hacked, shutting them down anywhere from several hours to several days last month. Internet users on the service provider Bagan Net are having their connections cut frequently.

An editor from a weekly journal told Mizzima, "I think that the closer we come to election day, the more often connections will be cut… People think the junta is doing it intentionally."

Among other violations, the Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) website lists nearly 2,200 political prisoners in various prisons across Burma, including "Kandarawaddy" news journal editor Nyi Nyi Tun, who was slapped with a 13-year prison sentence earlier this month. And Reporters Without Borders' just released Press Freedom Index ranks Burma 174 out of 178 countries.

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