The Multilateralist

Myanmar vote gets the ASEAN stamp of approval

Myanmar vote gets the ASEAN stamp of approval

The foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have given their blessing to this weekend’s elections in Myanmar:

Asian foreign ministers on Monday welcomed Myanmar’s "orderly" elections as they met ahead of a regional summit that will also be dominated by North Korea’s planned rocket launch and maritime disputes.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers held talks in Phnom Penh after historic by-elections in Myanmar appeared to give opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi her first seat in parliament.

Poll observers from ASEAN’s current chair Cambodia said the vote was "conducted in a free, fair and transparent manner".

"Despite complaints of irregularities and intimidation, this delegation did not observe any incidents that might have affected the process or the results of the by-elections," they said in a statement.

It’s abundantly clear that a historic transformation is underway in Myanmar. But it’s still worth asking whether Cambodia, which holds the rotating ASEAN chair and which apparently sent observers to watch the vote, is particularly well equipped for the task. The country gets a Not Free ranking from Freedom House, and prime minister Hun Sen has been a master at abusing ostensibly democratic processes.

There’s a broader issue here. Regional organizations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the African Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, have in recent years gone into the election monitoring business with gusto. Their methods and technical skill appear to vary widely. The phenomenon of having observers from non-democratic states opining on electoral practices is obviously problematic, but the tensions go deeper. Regional organizations are diplomatic bodies comprised of governments, and as such they likely have an embedded bias against opposition forces and against the disorder that comes with disputed elections. Susan Hyde and Judith Kelley made the point well in Foreign Affairs last  year:

It is important to remember that observers are agents of donors, governments, and organizations, whose need for diplomacy or stability can push monitors away from frankly assessing elections. This problem is underreported and not discussed enough, either because many in the media assume that all monitors are disinterested “election police” or because policymakers choose to turn a blind eye.