By Erin Simpson
Today was full of provocative and interesting discussions by women working for rights and democracy in repressive and violent contexts. Upcoming elections in both Sudan and Burma will present opportunities for democratic transformation, but also significant challenges.
In Sudan, the first general election since 1984 will be held in 2010. There have been significant problems with the census, specifically that many displaced and refugee Darfuris were not counted. The electoral procedures are extraordinarily complicated, with Southern Sudanese having to vote 12 times, and Northerners 7 times, for many different levels of government. There is lack of civic education among voters in all regions, very weak opposition to the ruling National Congress Party, ongoing conflict in Darfur, the indictment of Sudanese President Bashir, patriarchal culture, lack of funding for electoral processes and security restrictions on civil society and political parties.
Despite these obstacles, women are engaging and organizing, holding workshops and conducting civic education. Women in all parts of the country have been engaged in long struggles for their rights, and since the introduction of Sharia law in September 1984, they have navigated increasingly hostile waters. They believe the Sudanese women’s movement is a vital ingredient in, and force for, democracy in Sudan.
The people of Burma will, also in 2010, experience their first election since the 1990 elections that briefly elected Aung San Suu Kyi before the military re-took power in a coup. The prospects for the 2010 election are grim at best. In the months following the May 2008 cyclone in Burma, the junta carried out a referendum on a new constitution, and both the referendum and the constitution turned out badly. The referendum was marred by forced voting and fraudulent vote counts, and even the trading of desperately needed aid for cyclone survivors for “yes” votes. The new constitution gives impunity to members of the military, despite significant military crimes against the people of Burma. It also provides for a permanent role for the military in Burma’s politics, with 25% of seats in the parliament to be held by military. The document lacks any guarantees of substantive equality for women, and women will be kept from running for President, since the constitution requires the President to have military experience. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was married to a British man, is also banned from running for election, since those married to foreigners are not allowed to stand for election. The military has further guaranteed a weak opposition to its rule, by barring monks, nuns, and all those with criminal records (including the 2000 political prisoners). Women played no role in the drafting of the constitution.
The democratic movements in Burma- including the Women’s League of Burma – are concerned that the elections will legitimize the brutal rule of the regime, and they are pressing the UN and the rest of the international community not to recognize the elections.