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Burma and Haiti

A Tale of Two Elections

by DAN BEATON

On November 7, Burma’s military regime held the country’s first elections in 20 years. While several parties participated, the electoral process, and the results that saw the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party win, have rightly been condemned as a sham by the Obama Administration and other nations.

The reasons are straightforward: The authorities in charge in Burma barred parties from the ballot, including the most popular, the National League for Democracy (NLD), for refusing to expel party leader Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of other party members. The NLD won the last elections in 1990 but were never allowed to take office. Under house arrest, Suu Kyi was prevented from appearing in public. The military dictatorship’s handpicked commission oversaw the electoral process.

President Obama slammed the bogus elections, saying, “The elections were based on a fundamentally flawed process and demonstrated the [Burmese] regime’s continued preference for repression and restriction over inclusion and transparency.” He went on to say, “The unfair electoral laws and overtly partisan Election Commission ensured that Burma’s leading pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy, was silenced and sidelined.”

But much closer to home, the process is about to be repeated, and this time, the Obama Administration seems all too happy to go along with the charade. Haiti’s elections are scheduled for Nov. 28, and at this point, nothing – not the cholera outbreak that has claimed over 1,200 lives, nor the fact that over a million quake survivors remain homeless – seems likely to convince the Haitian government, nor its international backers, that the vote should be postponed.

In Haiti, as in Burma, the process is rigged: Several parties, including the most popular, Fanmi Lavalas, are being kept off the ballot in an overtly anti-democratic move. Fanmi Lavalas has won every election it has contested, and the Haitian authorities, it seems, are determined to prevent that from happening again. As in Burma, Haiti’s electoral process is being run by an electoral council hand-picked by the current government. And as in Burma, the party’s leader is kept from rallying supporters; while Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest, Aristide is prevented from returning to Haiti from exile in South Africa, as the Haitian government refuses to grant him a new passport. And even as pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma have been violently repressed, so too have they in recent years in Haiti by police firing live ammunition at crowds. Shamefully, in Haiti, UN troops have provided support for this police repression, when not attacking crowds and journalists directly themselves. Although the ongoing repression is not on the scale of Burma, thousands of Lavalas supporters were murdered after the 2004 overthrow of the elected president, Aristide. This coup was strongly supported by the U.S. government.

Whereas Obama Administration officials cited the exclusion of key political parties as a major concern in regards to Burma, the Administration is providing over $10 million in support for the Haitian elections. Even public condemnation of the flawed process from 45 members of Congress, Senator Richard Lugar (the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), and the NGO community has not budged the Administration from its expressed support. “These are decisions for the Government of Haiti to make. We’re not going to second guess any one decision,” State Department spokesperson Philip J. Crowley said when questioned about the controversy.

The dangers of U.S. support for an anti-democratic process in Haiti, and what assuredly signals support for the illegitimate government that will result, are serious. Frustrations among a majority of Haitians are already high, due to understandable factors, including the deplorable lack of progress that has been made to relocate displaced persons to suitable shelter, provide adequate sanitation, or even to remove rubble from the streets. Billions of dollars in aid money that the international community pledged months ago has yet to trickle in, even as the cholera epidemic sweeps across the country. The fact that the cholera outbreak is likely to have originated at a UN base in Haiti, and the UN mission’s undying support for the flawed electoral process – combined with the mission’s violent and sometimes criminal history over the past six years – has spurred protests against the UN in the past week.

International observers have warned of the possibility of mass protests and unrest for months as the post-quake situation worsened. Taking away the possibility of electing their own government, as the Haitian authorities are doing — with the Obama Administration’s support — will kill hope for many people for whom hope is already in desperately short supply.

If the Obama Administration wants to stand on the side of democracy and human rights in Haiti, as it did in Burma, it should support the call of Haitian parties and groups that want the elections postponed until all political parties are allowed to run, and all eligible voters are guaranteed the opportunity to vote. Since the current cholera outbreak could inhibit the latter, that should be an important consideration as well. Continued support for sham elections, however, would add to a long list of U.S. injustices against one of our closest neighbor states.

This column was originally published by The Los Angeles Times.