Thursday, November 11, 2010

Burma buys time with sham election

To nobody’s great surprise, Burmese military rulers had a sweeping victory in last week’s election. With the last democratically elected leader of the country under house arrest for the last eight years and her party forcibly disbanded, few outside the remote capital Naypyidaw had any faith in the election’s validity. The country has been ruled undemocratically since 1962 by a military proxy party under several different names. It annulled the unfavourable result of the one free election it had in the last 48 years. It was little surprise then to hear they picked up 80 percent of the seats this time round. (picture: SOE THAN WIN/AFP/Getty Images)

But it took a while for even this news to seep out. Silent for three days after the election, State Television finally announced on Wednesday top members of the ruling junta, including army joint chief-of-staff Thura Shwe Mann and Prime Minister Thein Sein, were among those who won seats in Parliament.

We only have State Media’s word for what happened as foreign reporters are not allowed in the country. The tightly controlled local media only takes the Government’s side when it is forced to take a side at all. Yet the people of Burma are not stupid and word of mouth ensures everyone knows what is really happening. A brave few like Muang San strapped on a hidden camera as he went to vote. “I’m a journalist,” he said. “It’s my duty to show the world what is happening in Burma.”

The main opposition party led by the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi boycotted the election. The Government retaliated by her National League for Democracy party. A breakaway offshoot called the National Democratic Front contested the election against the Government. With no press, no charismatic leader, no scrutiny of the polls and ten times fewer candidates, they were soundly trounced. “The Burmese junta hosted this election in order to whitewash itself internationally," said a banana seller at a market near the biggest city Rangoon.

This overlooks the fact that even this sham of an election has given voters the rare chance to voice their opinions and gain insights into a political culture stunted by an authoritarian government. The Government may struggle to put the genie back in the bottle. But the banana seller’s cynical analysis is mostly spot on.

The very fact an election was held, however irregular, gives the regime kudos and useful bargaining chips in its key relations with other ASEAN countries and China. Due to the repeated criticism of the US and the EU, Burma has become ASEAN’s albatross the association of south east Asian nations has survived due to its policy of turning the other cheek to member excesses but are under enormous pressure to get Burma to conform to international norms. ASEAN countries have offered guarded support for the elections. The real benefit is to give Asean an excuse to ignore further criticisms of the Naypyidaw regime.

The regime itself can also afford to ignore the criticisms. Burma spends at least 40 percent of its national budget on the military compared to 0.4 percent on healthcare and 0.5 percent on education. Its standing army of 500,000 soldiers is the largest in south east Asia. Foreign powers are queuing up to take their money.

In 2009, Burma signed a contract with Russia for the purchase of 20 MiG-29 jet fighters at a cost of nearly US $570 million and many of Burma's future nuclear military purchases may come from fellow rogue state North Korea. China is also a huge contributor as Burma’s third-largest trading partner and provides extensive military, economic and diplomatic support.

While fellow generals across Asia get cosy with the junta tatmadaw, the biggest thorn in their side remains the frail but immensely courageous activist Suu Kyi. The 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate, democracy activist and daughter of the country’s founder is apparently scheduled to be released Saturday from house arrest. Most observers remain sceptical this will happen as she has been in detention for 15 of the last 21 years despite repeated calls from the international community to release her. A bad sign is today’s decision to reject her appeal against house arrest by the politically motivated Burma’s Supreme Court.

Not all the regime’s enemies are in prison. In the hills, army forces still fight with ethnic groups that don’t want to be a part of Myanmar. Karen separatists are causing havoc on the border with Thailand. Thailand is concerned not because it wants to see a new Karen state, but because unrest at the Mae Sot-Myawaddy crossing is causing economic losses estimated to be in the region of 10 million baht (almost $400,000) this year. The Karen National Union has said it will now join up with five other ethnic rebel groups: the Kachin Independence Army, the Karenni National Progressive Party, the Mon New State Party and the Shan State Army-North.

Burma, for all its half a million strong army, is unable to crush these six ethnic revolt. Neither can the compliant media stop the grumbling on the streets of Rangoon. Like any Government that rules by fear, the Burmese junta philosophy is driven by desperate fear it will be overthrown. It has to prove the election victory is not pyrrhic, otherwise its enemies will strike stronger than ever. But at the very least it buys them more time to plan the counter-attack. The paranoid tragedy that is Burma’s politics still has a few acts to go before the curtain falls.

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