Throughout Burma, preparations are quietly being made for the country’s first elections in two decades. The last time Burmese citizens went to the polls, in May 1990, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won convincingly. The country’s military rulers refused to allow the party to form the government. This time around, the generals are planning not to repeat their mistake, and so are tightly controlling all aspects of the polls in order to ensure they do not lose. One of the central tenets of this strategy appears to be deliberately keeping everyone in the dark.
Preparations for the elections, currently thought to be scheduled for mid-2010, are being undertaken even before new electoral laws have been made public, let alone promulgated. As such, until all new election-related legislation is made public, no one outside of the government actually knows how the polls will be conducted – and, more importantly, who will be competing. Officially, there are no political parties registered to put up candidates in the election, and this can only happen after the new regulations are passed and an election commission is established.
Until that point, little planning can be done by the public and civil society. “The regime, especially Senior General Than Shwe, is keeping everyone guessing,” said Win Min, an independent Burmese academic based in Chiang Mai, in Thailand. “The electoral law is likely to be revealed only a few months before the election, so that the opposition is kept off guard and has little time to select candidates and register them, let alone plan a campaign.” During the elections of 1990, electoral regulations were made public 20 months before the elections, which perhaps explains the junta’s reticence this time around.
Twenty years on, Burma is a very different country than it was in 1990. Repression, harassment and economic decay have together left the Burmese citizenry bewildered and angry at the military, though whether this will translate into a strong anti-government vote at the polls remains an open question. Indeed, pro-democracy activists are currently split on whether they should even run in the elections. “Why should we contest these elections?” says a US-based Burmese activist, Aung Din. “The military will tightly control everything. How can there be free and fair elections when many of our leaders are in prison for political activities?”
As to why the junta would want to hold a poll exercise at all, elections are only a means by which it can pretend to the world that it has moved towards democratic, civilian rule. Under the new Constitution, which was approved in May 2008 and will come into force after the new Parliament is seated, a quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for army officers. Already, junior officers are being given instructions on political and economic matters during officer-level training courses. The assumption is that they are being groomed for service as military members of parliament. “In 2010, it will only be an election of the dictators – as they take off their uniforms and pretend to be civilians,” said Soe Aung, a leading Burmese pro-democracy activist based in Thailand. Many government officials in Burma confide privately that the process will indeed be a selection, not an election.
Planning the campaign
Even though political parties have yet to be formed, candidates yet to be chosen and there is an information blackout, the military government is actively preparing the ground for the election. Businessmen with close connections to the regime have already been told that they must support pro-government candidates, and that they have to provide funds for their campaigns. So detailed are the initial plans that the junta has allocated specific electorates to certain businessmen, and demanded their financial backing. “We cannot afford to lose this election,” the current prime minister, General Thein Sein, told some leading businessmen recently, according to Western diplomats. “Otherwise, we will have wasted the last 20 years, with nothing to show.”
One reason for the delay in passing the electoral law, according to diplomats in Rangoon, is that the senior leadership has yet to decide on a strategy for the polls. One thing is clear, though: those army men who were placed in government positions, and who have become ministers, will be expected to lead the battle for political control of the country. Many have already been told exactly which electorate district they will be contesting, or which provincial parliament they will be heading after the 2010 polls. (The Burmese state set-up includes both national and regional parliaments, and 14 provincial and state legislatures.)
The first sign that the elections preparations are building steam will be a major shake-up in government. Sometime in the next several months, observers anticipate that at least a dozen ministers will resign or retire. Thereafter, they will take up key positions in pro-government political parties, which will subsequently be formed (assuming, of course, that they do not already exist). Many of these individuals already head the mass community organisation that Gen Than Shwe set up more than ten years ago to mobilise public support for the government, known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).
Most analysts in Rangoon do not believe the USDA will become a political party in its own right, however. It has become very unpopular, particularly due to the vigilante role it played in the violent attack on Suu Kyi and her supporters in May 2003, and the crackdown on monks and demonstrators during the anti-inflation protests of September 2007, referred to as the Saffron Revolution. Instead, most observers believe the army will form at least one major party – and possibly more – under the direction of the USDA, which will provide financial support along with the ‘donations’ from businessmen.
So far, the NLD plans to boycott the elections. Its leaders insist that before they will consider fielding candidates, all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, must be released and the Constitution revised. “The military is planning a constitutional coup that will turn them into civilian rulers overnight, without the need for genuine popular support,” said Zin Linn, a spokesman for the pro-democracy movement and a former political prisoner who currently lives in Paris. “The main prerequisite for a free and fair election must be the immediate release of all political prisoners, especially our party leaders, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin U.” Many smaller pro-democracy parties aligned with the NLD are supporting this stance, including the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, the second-largest party after the NLD in the 1990 elections.
On the other hand, the organisations representing the main ethnic minorities, which have all negotiated ceasefire pacts with the military regime, have decided to contest the elections, something they did not do in 1990. The Kachin, in the north of the country, have defied the wishes of the junta and formed a single political party, which will represent all Kachin. Although the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) is party to the main current ceasefire, there are several other smaller Kachin units with separate ceasefire agreements. All have now buried their differences to form a coalition party, along with the support of the powerful Kachin Baptist Congress.
Other ethnic groups, including the Kokang, Shan and the Wa, are expected to form political parties, as well. The central issue for these groups, however, is whether and when they will turn over their arms to the authorities. Under the ceasefire pacts they have signed with the government, they were permitted to hold onto their weapons until a ‘political solution’ was decided upon. The former head of military intelligence and prime minister, General Khin Nyunt, identified this plan as the solution when the constitution was drawn up, before the constitutional referendum was held. These steps have now come and gone, but not a single of the ethnic groups has disarmed. Furthermore, they are unlikely to do so prior to the elections, even though they have come under extreme pressure from the junta in the past few months to comply.
Carving out space
Not all are pessimistic about the polls, however. There are some within the pro-democracy movement who feel that the elections will be an opportunity to test the military’s control. They are planning to run as independents or to form smaller local parties to contest outside the umbrella of the NLD. “It’s a two-pronged approach to the elections,” a young activist from Rangoon explained. “We will fight the elections, with the tacit support at least of the pro-democracy movement, while the NLD can officially boycott the process.”
Many young activists and community leaders see the elections as a means of building a major anti-military alliance, but without actually declaring war on the army. “The experience of the relief-and-reconstruction efforts post-Cyclone Nargis has invigorated these people,” one observant Western diplomat says, referring to the community activists. “They felt empowered by their combined efforts to provide assistance to those in need, and understand that they now have a unique standing in the local communities they supported, which could be translated into votes in 2010.” He adds: “The beauty of it all is that the local military officials have worked with them, and trust them to some extent.”
Still others are already looking past the elections. “The issue really is not 2010, but to lay the groundwork for 2015,” one young political activist in Rangoon said recently. Indeed, most visionary members of the pro-democracy movement are likely thinking along these lines. In this view, the forthcoming elections should provide an opportunity to test the junta, to push the limits and provide a platform for increasing democratic space in the following years.
Technically, though this should be helped in this by the government itself. Of course, the regime itself is fully aware that its ‘roadmap to democracy’, unveiled in August 2003 by then-Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt, included a stage for increasing political space and freedoms. This was referred to as Stage 2, but has been skipped over in the rush to complete the other stages before the election (Stage 5). This was to include a period of confidence-building, which would include allowing a freer press and civic activities by community groups. There was also an understanding that existing political parties would be able to open offices and to work free of harassment. “There was a clear understanding between Khin Nyunt and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at the time that this would include a mass amnesty for all political prisoners,” the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Paulo Pinheiro, said recently.
There are no signs whatsoever that these vital steps are in the offing anytime soon. Instead, there are clear signals from the regime that anyone who challenges the government will face stern action. In recent times, more than 300 political activists, lawyers, journalists and bloggers have been given stiff jail sentences. The most draconian sentences were handed down last November to more than 20 former student leaders for organising the protests in August and September 2007. “These sentences are a clear signal that the regime will not tolerate any opposition in the lead-up to the elections in 2010,” said Benjamin Zawacki, the Burma officer for Amnesty International. According to a 2008 Amnesty report, the number of political prisoners in Burma has almost doubled to 2150, up from about 1100 in 2007 (Official date is unavailable for 2009). “It’s business as usual,” said Zawacki. “They are using draconian prison sentences to warn people not to stand up to the regime. All that’s changed is their rhetoric – there’s no roadmap to political change.”