The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Those Shadowy Advance Votes

Shadaw is not the sort of place that normally attracts much attention. Nestled in a remote corner of Burma’s landlocked and sparsely populated Karenni State, it is described by those who know it as scenic but otherwise unremarkable. The few thousand people who live there are mostly ethnic Karenni subsistence farmers who rarely have occasion to welcome visitors.

On Nov. 7, however, Shadaw became a place of real distinction. In an election that claimed a 77 percent national turnout, Shadaw stands out as the only constituency where every single eligible voter cast ballots for all five seats representing the area in the upper and lower houses of the national legislature and in the state assembly.

Election officials work at a votecounting center in Rangoon on Nov. 7. (Photo: REUTERS)
What makes this display of voter enthusiasm all the more remarkable is the fact that only two parties ran in Shadaw, both of them pro-military. Apart from the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the only other choice was the National Unity Party (NUP), the regime’s proxy party in Burma’s last election in 1990.

In itself, this paucity of options was not unusual. Apart from the USDP and the NUP, which fielded 1,112 and 995 candidates respectively, the remaining 35 parties mustered a mere 880 candidates between them. Even if none of these candidates and the 82 independents who joined the race ran in the same constituencies, that would leave at least 16 percent of the 1,154 seats up for grabs without any non-military candidates. However, since many non-military candidates did compete against each other, the number of two-way contests between the USDP and NUP was actually more like a fifth to a quarter of the total.   

But why, given the fact that Shadaw was hardly a hotly contested constituency, did so many of its residents clamor to cast a vote?

It seems unlikely that the perfect turnout was intended as an overwhelming show of support for the ruling regime’s political agenda. After all, this is a state with an active insurgency, where decades of conflict between government forces and Karenni rebels have taken an enormous toll on the local population, chiefly as a result of the Burmese military’s “Four Cuts” strategy aimed at stemming support for insurgents. Even if they are not directly in the firing line, the people of Shadaw would undoubtedly be aware of the ruling regime’s widespread practice of forced relocation of entire villages and attacks on civilians suspected of sympathizing with those calling for greater ethnic autonomy.

Perhaps, however, clamor is not quite the right word to describe the situation in Shadaw on election day. A closer look at the results published by the state-run New Light of Myanmar shows that polling on Nov. 7 was actually a rather quiet affair, with only 69 out of 1,821 eligible voters showing up to cast their ballots for their member of the People’s Parliament, or lower house of the national legislature, and similarly low numbers coming out to choose their other representatives in the upper house and regional assembly.

So how did Shadaw achieve a 100 percent turnout, when the percentage of voters who actually bothered to go to the polling stations was in the low single digits? The answer, in two words that have been repeated often since the election, is: advance votes.

Throughout the country, advance votes played a key role in determining the outcome of contests that were much closer than those in Shadaw, where the USDP garnered more than 90 percent of the  votes. According to research by The Irrawaddy, there were at least 60 confirmed cases of candidates losing overnight after advance votes were added to the total, despite having a clear lead as election day counting neared completion. In almost every case, the final outcome favored the USDP.

Although this is not proof that the vote in Shadaw was rigged, the fact that it fits a pattern witnessed in many other parts of the country certainly suggests that something was amiss. However, since the regime’s handpicked Union Election Commission (EC) has effectively barred any possibility of an investigation into alleged irregularities (by threatening those making “false accusations” with heavy fines and prison sentences), it is unlikely that we will ever know what really went on in Shadaw on Nov. 7.

In other remote constituencies, there are similar signs of manipulation that may never be fully exposed. In Maukmai, Shan State, for instance, scarcely three percent of the local electorate cast their ballots for the Shan State parliament on election day. However, advance votes and absentee ballots more than made up for this low turnout at polling stations. As in Shadaw, most of these votes went to the USDP rather than to its main local rival, the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party. Interestingly, all 189 votes cast on Nov. 7 were rejected by the local EC, meaning that the final outcome was based entirely on advance and absentee votes.

If there is any chance at all of charges of vote rigging being addressed, it is in Burma’s urban constituencies, where some candidates have been outspoken in challenging the official results. The most notable example is Rangoon’s South Okkalapa Township, where Dr. Saw Naing, an independent candidate for a seat in the Rangoon Division parliament, was declared the winner the day after the election, only to see the seat go to his USDP opponent.

Saw Naing’s case is indeed unusual. As vote counting neared completion on Nov. 7, the local EC gave Saw Naing a 600-vote lead. The next morning, however, he was informed that he had lost after advance votes were counted. But this result was again reversed later that day, when the EC confirmed that he had won, albeit by a margin of just six votes. He signed a form certifying his victory, but was shocked to discover that this result was overturned again the next day, when he noticed that his rival was declared the winner on a list officially announcing the final results.

Since then, he has repeatedly demanded an investigation into his case. As one of the handful of candidates who cooperated with efforts by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) to document cases of electoral fraud, Saw Naing said he wanted the junta to “review the [NLD’s] report and discuss it with the candidates.”

“If the regime is not going to discuss the NLD report, I will be dissatisfied,” he said on Nov. 30, the day the NLD—which was forcibly disbanded earlier this year for refusing to take part in the election—completed the first draft of the report.  

On Dec. 5, Saw Naing continued his crusade, sending a letter to the regime’s top general, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, to ask him to intervene. Three days later, he was summoned again by the local EC and ordered to sign a form conceding the contest to Aung Kyaw Moe.

Even within the NUP, which officially recognized the USDP’s victory even before the final results were announced, there were murmurs of discontent over the way the regime-backed party prevailed. 

“We competed and campaigned fairly, but they defeated us by illegal means,” said San Lwin, an NUP candidate for Tharrawaddy Township in Pegu Division, soon after the election.

Despite expectations that the NUP—which was trounced by the NLD in 1990—would give the USDP a run for its money, the party won just 63 parliamentary seats in this year’s vote. That gave it around 5.4 percent of the total, compared to the 76.5 percent claimed by the USDP.

Many of the seats “won” by the USDP were uncontested; many others were gained through advance votes, which were often acquired through means that would not be recognized as legitimate by international standards.

“In far too many cases, advance ballots were collected door-to-door, a blatant violation of the principle of the secret ballot and a situation ripe for voter intimidation,” said the Asian Network for Free Elections in a Dec. 7 statement calling for comprehensive electoral reform in Burma.

It seems, then, that Shadaw was not so exceptional after all, but rather a fairly typical example of how the USDP managed to sweep Burma’s first election in 20 years, setting the stage for a new, quasi-civilian government backed by the leaders of the current regime.

However, with the shadow of a rigged election hanging over it, the USDP will have its work cut out for it to convince the Burmese people and the rest of the world that its “victory” is indeed a step in the right direction for a country that has not known democracy for nearly half a century.

Parliament Eligible VotersVoting Results
Direct Votes(%)Advance Votes(%)Voter Turnout
People’s Parliament 1,821693.781,75296.22100%
Nationalities Parliament Constituency 714385.5913594.41100%
Nationalities Parliament Constituency 81,680593.511,62196.49100%

Karenni State Parliament Constituency 1
Karenni State Parliament Constituency 21,680593.511,62196.49100%
Source: The New Light of Myanmar, Nov. 13 and 14




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