Friday, August 13, 2010
The Burma junta names the day
QUITE why it has taken the junta ruling Myanmar so long to name the date of its promised election is as mysterious as most things decided by its leader, the “senior general”, Than Shwe. The junta has long said that an election would be held this year, under a constitution approved, in a farcically rigged referendum, in 2008. Yet only now has state-run radio confirmed precisely when: November 7th.
Perhaps it wanted to keep its opponents guessing—though with so many other advantages, it hardly needed that one. More likely, its fortune-tellers had something to do with it. The generals are notoriously superstitious and given to weighting numbers and dates with astrological import. (That this one, the date of the fraught Bush-Gore presidential election in 2000, might seem ill-starred to many Americans would be the least of their concerns.)
This will be only the fifth election in the history of independent Burma (whose name the junta changed to Myanmar in 1989), and the first since 1990. That was a disaster for the generals, who promptly inflicted its consequences on their people. The electorate plumped by a big majority for the democratic opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Even at the time, the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the country’s independence hero, was in detention, as she has been for most of the two decades since.
The junta never permitted the NLD to take power, insisting in retrospect that the election was not for a parliament, but for a constituent assembly that would draft a constitution (in 1995, the NLD boycotted the constitutional convention as, in Miss Suu Kyi’s words, “an absolute farce”). Ever since, exiled activists and lobbyists in the West have called for the 1990 results to be honoured, and for the sanctions imposed on Myanmar by America and the European Union to be maintained until they are.
The generals seem determined not to make the same mistake twice. In this they will be helped by the NLD’s own decision to boycott the election—which the party quite accurately pointed out will be neither free nor fair. But a breakaway NLD faction is among the 40 parties that have registered. They include other opposition groups from both the ethnic-Burman majority and the many minorities from the border areas.
On August 11th the junta announced details of the 330 constituencies to be contested. A further 110 are already reserved for the army. In the elected seats, it will be an uneven contest. Pro-government parties, including the Union Solidarity and Development Party, have huge advantages. The USDP, led by generals who have gone into mufti for the purpose, has its roots in a mass organisation formed by the junta, to which all civil servants had to belong.
The press is as muzzled as any in the world; leading activists are barred from taking part as former convicts (the junta routinely locks up and tortures its opponents); and the opposition is harassed and victimised. Just this week, one party has complained of intimidation. And one opposition leader has quoted a government minister as warning voters that the alternative to a USDP victory is a coup.
So rigged is the election that it prompts questions as to why it is being held in the first place. One possibility is that the junta wants to mend fences with the West and appear more legitimate. But even the generals must know that a poll as fraudulent as this one is unlikely to achieve that end; and, as we have argued elsewhere, they seem in fairly confident mood at the moment.
Another suggestion is that it is part of a process of succession from Than Shwe, who is 77. This will involve distributing power among various interests, including a small but thriving class of business cronies enriched under the junta.
One explanation that can be excluded, however, is a sincere offer by the generals to cede absolute control. It is a measure of their power that even many of their most vehement critics are prepared to hold their noses and support the election. No other sort of change is realistically on offer; and almost any is better than none. And, searching for hope in a country often close to despair, at the very least the election and its outcome might produce a Myanmar more pluralistic than before. Banyan’s Notebook in the Economist