A yet-darkened horizon

The national elections planned for later this year are currently dominating everything else in Burma, despite the fact that there has been no official announcement about when the polls will actually take place. Nevertheless, all over Burma preparations are being made for the country's first elections in two decades, with the government administration having been put into suspended animation while ministers and civil servants in effect start political campaigning.

In the last elections, held in May 1990, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won convincingly. But Burma's military rulers did not allow them to form a civilian government. This time around, the generals are determined not to make the same mistake, and are tightly controlling everything to ensure they do not lose. Part of this strategy is clearly a 'no information' approach to the polls. "The electoral and political-party laws are now 60-70 percent complete," Foreign Minister Nyan Win told his Thai counterpart, Kasit Piromya, at a recent ASEAN meeting in Hanoi. "[It will] take another two or three months to make it 100 percent. So, I think the elections would be most probably in the second half [of the year]." This view is shared by analysts and diplomats in Beijing, Burma's closest ally, who believe that the polls will take place sometime after September.

Superstition seems to be having an impact on planning. According to senior military sources speaking to this writer late last year, the elections will take place on 10 October – the 10th of the 10th month of 2010 – and exactly 10 parties will be allowed to run. Many observers are now strongly tipping 10 October 10 as the date to watch, given the known fixation of the junta (including its chief, Gen Than Shwe) on numerology. In the past, the military made many key decisions on the basis of what astrologers had decreed as auspicious or significant dates, including the 1990 election date and the mass move to the new jungle capital of Naypyidaw. While it now seems almost certain to be held in either October or November – after the rainy season – the alleged obsession with the number 10 may actually be a hoax. However, it is known that the elections will be held on a Sunday, the Burmese rest day.

Meanwhile, until the election laws are made public, there is little that the potential political players can do but bide their time. Until then, no one knows how the election will be conducted, and more importantly who will be competing. Officially, after all, there are still no political parties registered to stand candidates in the election, and this can only happen after the relevant bylaws are passed and an electoral commission established. "The political parties and election laws will be unveiled at the last minute," Win Min, a Burmese academic based at Chiang Mai University in Thailand said recently. "They want to keep any potential opposition wrong-footed, and not allow them time to organise."

'No change'
During the 1990 elections, the electoral law was made public a year and a half before the elections. But even as the junta leaders move to correct that 'mistake', today's Burma is a much different country than it was then. Repression, harassment and economic decay have left many Burmese bewildered and angrier than ever at the military – though whether this will translate into a strong anti-government vote at the polls remains an open question. For their part, the pro-democracy activists are split on whether to even run in the elections. "Why should we contest these elections – the military will tightly control everything," said one US-based Burmese activist, Aung Din. "How can there be free and fair elections, when many of our leaders are in prison for their political activities? The Constitution was forced on us – written by them and then" – in May 2008 – "everyone was coerced to vote for it in a sham referendum."

Indeed, many believe that the elections are merely a means for the military to pretend that it has moved to democratic, civilian rule. Under the new Constitution, a quarter of government seats are reserved for army officers. Over the past year or so, junior officers have been given instruction in political and economic matters as part of their senior-officer training courses – to prepare them for possible service as military MPs, according to Burmese military sources. Many of them who have attended the National Defence College, the prestigious officers' school, are now earmarked to take up positions in the new 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 to this writer that the process will be a selection rather than an election. In this way, while there almost certainly will be some form of elections this year, there will be no transfer of power, according to Chinese diplomats who watch Burma. This is regardless of whether Suu Kyi or her party ends up participating in the polls. "Things will remain the same; there will be no change in political power," said one senior Chinese government official on condition of anonymity.

There seems little chance that the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for more than 13 of the last 20 years, will be allowed to participate in the elections. She has currently appealed against her sentence of 18 months under house arrest, handed down by the court late last year. That would be late November if the sentence is carried out to the full. Recently, however, the country's powerful home minister Maung Oo has confirmed that the pro-democracy leader will be released soon, but not before the elections. "We welcome the news," Win Tin, a senior National League for Democracy leader, told journalists in Rangoon. "But this is not politically significant, since the elections would already be finished when Aung San Suu Kyi is released."

In fact, it has now become clear than the country's powerful army chief, Than Shwe, has decided that he will become the new president after the elections, instead of retiring to his lavish new private home. "He now feels that he cannot trust anyone," said Sein Kyaw Hlein, an independent Burmese journalist based in Bangkok. "His faithful lieutenants are too corrupt to be able win the elections, so he has to do the job instead." Further, the situation after the elections is likely to be fragile, suggests a senior Burmese writer in Rangoon on condition of anonymity, and perhaps only a strong-armed leader would be able to keep the country from falling apart. "This has left Than Shwe with no option but to take the presidency and ensure the next ten years are a stable and peaceful transition – with the army firmly in the jockey's seat," said the writer, who has strong connections to the military.

Fixing the elections still poses major problems for the military leaders. Those who stand will have to attract the popular vote – which in Burma now will be no mean feat, if the election is in any way free and fair. At least a dozen of the current ministers have been selected by Gen Than Shwe to run for office; these individuals will now have to resign from government in order to contest, and will have until April, the end of the current financial year, to put their ministries in order. At that point an interim government, with only executive (not legislative) powers, will be formed to run the country for the six months up until the elections are held. Government administration is to be streamlined – the number of ministries halved, with only 17 ministers in charge. Already two ministers who are destined to become politicians have resigned, and their portfolios merged with other ministries. The rest will do so following the Thingyan (Buddhist New Year) celebrations in mid-April. All of them will also have to declare their assets before registering as candidates, according to government sources in Burma.

After the political-party law is unveiled, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), the mass community organisation set up by Than Shwe about 17 years ago to support the military government at the grassroots, is expected to announce the formation of a political party. It may even form three parties, according to some Burmese government officials, and it is these parties that will form the bulwark of the junta's move from military to civilian power. The ministers tapped for political futures will then join one of these parties, according to military sources. In fact, ministers who are part of this process have been quietly campaigning now for nearly a year, handing out largesse whenever they can. Than Shwe recently told the minister-cum-politicians that they had to do more political work and start organising their party functions, but without making their actions public. "The ministers are not allowed to be seen on TV in their political role," said Sein Kyaw Hlein, the Bangkok-based journalist.

In the coming months there will be massive changes in the army as well as government. A major overhaul of the military is expected with hundreds, if not thousands, of senior officers retiring to make way for the new generation of younger officers. This is largely in preparation for the new relationship that is expected to emerge after the elections. In theory, regional commanders will now have to answer to the local civilian authorities, something that runs directly counter to the military practise of the last two decades. Already there are tensions in some areas between the local authorities and the central government, especially related to issues of forced labour and the mandate of the International Labour Organisation, which is currently at loggerheads with the government over forced labour. Local courts have overruled executive orders to return confiscated land, and farmers who have returned are being prosecuted for trespassing – as many as 60 in one area are facing stiff prison sentences for claiming lands that the central authorities had already agreed was unlawfully seized. This may just be a forerunner of things to come.

This year's election process is already fraught, and the attention of the international community will be closely focused on how the polls are eventually conducted. Despite Foreign Minister Nyan Win's repeated promises that the elections will be free and fair, most pro-democracy activists and analysts remain highly sceptical. Ultimately, one crucial issue is how the international community will decide on how to define the minimum standards of the election's credibility. "As long as the elections are not objectionable, they will be acceptable to the region," Secretary-General of ASEAN Surin Pitsuwan recently told this writer. At least for the Southeast Asian neighbourhood, then the bar has not been set very high. But, of course, the key will be how the Burmese population regards the election process. "While this regime has ruled largely through fear, don't discount an Iran-style reaction if the result appears to have been overly-manipulated by the military," a young budding Burmese politician who intends to stand in the elections said recently. He declined to be identified, for fear of being detained.

~-Larry Jagan is a freelance journalist and Burma specialist based in Bangkok.

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