The Ghost of Elections Past
By KO KO THETT Monday, May 31, 2010


Since the 1922 introduction of a “legislative council” election to Burma, the notion of elections has always been suspect to the Burmese populace. This is not surprising, for Burma’s ballot boxes have never served their purpose—the electing of people’s representatives whose constitutional mandate can change or enforce government’s policy. Under both the British colonial administration and subsequent post-colonial governments, Burma’s elections have never translated into genuine political change. 

In the 1920s, the dyarchy in which 80 members of the 130-member legislative council were elected and the rest were appointed by the British fractured the Burmese nationalist movement.

While moderates sought to change the system from within, radical nationalists in the movement called for “home rule”—a separation from British India—before they articulated independence for the country. The dyarchy election law disenfranchised most people in the peasantry since the suffrage for 44 constituencies in rural areas was based on the payment of taxation.

Out of a Burmese population of 12 million in 1922, there were only 1.8 million eligible voters. The voter turnout was very low, only 6.9 percent of eligible voters participated in Burma’s very first election.

The legislative council hopefuls were labeled “sellouts” to the British. Intimidation of the would-be voters by elections boycotters, nationalist monks and agitators was not uncommon. In fact, little effort was really needed to dissuade people, who had never known an election, from voting.
The second legislative council election in 1925 saw a 10 percent increase in voter turnout: 16.26 percent of the qualified voting population. The increased political participation was explained by the elected representatives’ success in making amendments to controversial laws, such as the 1907 Village Act of Burma and the 1920 Rangoon University Act. The attempts to encourage people into political participation by the elected politicians and the increased number of political parties also contributed to the increased voter turnout.

In 1927, the Simon Commission, chaired by Sir John Simon who was appointed by Westminster, started probing the possibility of “self-governing institutions” in Burma. British colonialists thought it expedient to keep Burma away from “the disturbing influence of Indian politics.” The 1930 Simon Commission report recommended that Burma be governed separately from India.

It took five years for the British to come up with the Government of Burma Act to implement the recommendations of the 1930 Simon Report. The constitution of 1935 discarded the dyarchy and added 33 new constituencies, increasing the number of ethnic Karen constituencies from five to 12.

By the time the 1936 election was held, all features of multi-party politics, from factionalism and forming coalitions to switching allegiance, flip-flopping, politicking, character assassination, party thuggery and boycotting of the electoral process were no longer new to the Burmese. The populace, by and large, learned to despise their politicians as much as they hated the British colonialists. The year also saw the Rangoon University strike and the emergence of the student activists Aung San and future premier Ko Nu as leaders of the hugely popular nationalist “Dobama Thakin” (“We Burmese Masters”) movement.

The thakin were not keen on “legislative politics” and downright rejected the 1935 Constitution. Yet the 1936 election on the offer was seen as a political opening by some dobama leaders. In the end the thakin belatedly founded the Komin-Kochin Aphwe (Our King, Our Affair Party) and fielded no less than 30 candidates to contest in the election. Ironically, one of their avowed aims was to disrupt the legislture's proceedings. Only three thakin were elected to the constituent assembly in 1936.

Fabian Ba Khine, one of the witnesses at the time, noted that the three elected thakin attended the assembly meetings with their adopted aim to revoke the 1935 Constitution and always sided with the party in opposition. They consistently opposed the government. It also meant that the thakin could not take up ministerial posts.

Senior politician Dr. Ba Maw, the founder leader of Sinyetha (Proletariat Party), became the first premier of Burma under the 1935 Constitution as he cleverly maneuvered different political forces to form a coalition government. Having formed her own government, Burma was finally separated from British India in 1937.

In the latter half of the 1930s, the ascendancy of Marxist politics in the Dobama movement naturally led to the consideration of “independence by any means” and extra-parliamentary activities to overthrow the British.

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A.M.O Wrote:
Yes, the 'Ghost of elections' will haunt those in Burma's power players like Than Shwe & his cronies, who are ignorant of a Burmese poet's line:- "A king's ruling span is somewhat like a bubble form & burst in the ocean - so short, that is".

And, similar to 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'(the Scottish play), present power players shall be haunted by the ghosts of people killed during their reign of twenty years, such as:-

- Gen Ne Win(who died under house arrest)
- Victims of Depayin (few dozens killed)
- Victims of Buddhist monk crisis
- Victims of Nargis(inaction to save lives)
- Other covert killings(only power players themselves could know)

As in Macbeth, Is there a witch who will predict -'none of woman born shall harm Macbeth'?

Yeyint Wrote:
It is interesting to read more of his articles on the 2010 election. What he's gonna say again? As far as I know, he was sacked by the Forum of Burmese in Europe (FBE) because he supported the regime's sham election of 2010.

Soe Thane Wrote:
Excellent reminder that we have been very good at boycotting, saying 'no', opposing, and denouncing anything that we don't like 100% or don't lead ourselves.

For us (Burmese), it's either our way, or no way.

Where has that led us? To this moment, for which no Burmese person can be proud.

I'm really getting sick of all of them, from Than Shwe to ASSK. They are all the same.

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bullet Helping Education to Keep Pace with Reform

bullet Resolving Ethnic Conflicts in Burma—Ceasefires to Sustainable Peace

bullet How the Game Was Lost

bullet Karens at the Crossroads

bullet Building Country Ownership in Burma

bullet Donors Rush Where Angels Feared to Tread

bullet Myanmar: On Claiming Success

bullet Ceasefires Won't Bring Peace

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