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Cablegate: Election Forum Brings Taste of Democracy to Burma

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E.O. 12958:N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL KPAO BM
SUBJECT: ELECTION FORUM BRINGS TASTE OF DEMOCRACY TO BURMA

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1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Over 100 Burmese students, journalists and
businesspeople gathered at the Embassy's American Center on February
6 to watch live results of the Super Tuesday primary elections and
participate in a lively discussion about foreign policy and
democratic values. Embassy officers and American Center teachers
led the discussions. The participants contrasted Burma's lack of
political freedom with the openness of the U.S. electoral process.
Burmese students also participated in a straw poll, enabling them to
experience their own measure of the democratic process. END
SUMMARY.

2. (U) The American Center in Rangoon hosted a Super Tuesday
discussion session on February 6, exposing Burmese youth to the
concept of voting for national leaders, an experience few know for
themselves. An audience of 100, mostly Burmese students, attended
the program, which offered live CNN coverage of Super Tuesday
primary election results at the American Center. U.S. Embassy
officers and American Center teachers led small group discussion and
break-out sessions, elaborating on the election process.

Reacting to Election Clips
--------------------------

3. (SBU) Scenes of crowded polling stations and jubilant expressions
from supporters of the various candidates in America contrasted
starkly against a background of acute oppression and continuing
political arrests in Burma. Audience reactions ranged from
fascination to astonishment at America's openness. One young
Burmese student asked, "You can debate in the United States?"
Others expressed disbelief that television commentators and
political analysts spoke their minds without fear of punishment. A
group of students from a beginner's English class were baffled at
the lack of any authority dictating which party should lead the
country.

Learning about Democratic Politics
----------------------------------

4. (U) This was the first exposure to American politics for many
participants and for a few, it was the first introduction to the
reality of democracy and voting. Audience members asked about basic
U.S. election procedures, the differences between candidates'
positions and party policies, and election dynamics. While most
participants understood how parties worked in principle, some lacked
any understanding of the way that the Republican and Democrat party
elect convention delegates. When one participant asked what the
difference was between Democrats and Republicans, emboffs explained
how different parties represent different interests and policies.
Americans have the right to vote for the candidate most in line with
their personal preferences and values, they emphasized. In response
to a question, one emboff explained to a group of participants that
he would not lose his job or face reprisals if the White House or
Congress changed hands.

5. (SBU) A handful of participants displayed deeper knowledge about
American politics. One woman attendee wanted to know why a state's
political party might choose to have a winner-take-all allocation of
delegates, instead of splitting them among candidates. Other
questions focused on specific topics such as differences between the
candidates over the Iraq war, other foreign policy issues, and
economic policies. In response to a question about which candidate
would take the strongest stance on Burma, an emboff noted that the
U.S. Congress voted almost unanimously for current measures, and
that both parties fully support the struggle for greater democracy
in the country. While the event was a serious effort to promote
democratic values, it was not without humor. The audience laughed
when they noticed that American political parties have "national
conventions," the same name as the meeting of Burmese
junta-appointed delegates that rubber-stamped the military's sham

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"roadmap to democracy."

Experiencing Democracy through Voting
-------------------------------------

6. (U) Participants also had the opportunity to experience the
democratic process firsthand. Early in the program, candidates were
asked to vote for their preferred Democratic and Republican
candidates. On the Republican side, John McCain won about
two-thirds of the vote. The results on the Democratic side closely
set the scene for the actual results of Super Tuesday, with Hillary
Clinton and Barack Obama finishing in a dead heat. The program was
scheduled to end at 10:30 a.m., but participants continued to ask
questions about American politics. In the spirit of democracy, the
participants were offered another chance to vote, with the option of
extending the program by 90 minutes. Reflecting the Burmese
population's hunger for open politics, the result was a resounding
"yes."


Comment
-------

7. (SBU) This event further displays a keen interest in politics
amongst Burmese citizens and a desire to have their own political
voice. The participants' lack of knowledge about the political
process shows the need for continued awareness-raising. This kind
of outreach is at the heart of the American Center's mission. While
the regime suspects the American Center of intervening in Burmese
politics, discussions of U.S. politics does not cause as much
concern. Thus we can indirectly raise the political awareness of
the Burmese. We will continue to work closely with the people of
Burma, educating them on the importance and mechanics of democracy
and the value of free and fair elections.


VILLAROSA

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