Makeovers and Takeovers in Burma – ISN

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Burma’s military elites are ditching their uniforms so they can run as civilians in elections scheduled for later this year. That makeover might be just cosmetic, but is likely to guarantee continued army rule in what is being slammed in some quarters as a ‘military election’.

The junta is encountering problems, however, in its takeover bid with the country’s ethnic militias, the largest of whom have defied five deadlines to stand down and become part of the country’s border guard forces.

Since June 2009, the stakes have been raised by army attacks on rebel-held areas, in some cases carried out in partnership with proxy militias working with the regime. These attacks drove thousands from their homes, with Karen refugees fleeing to the jungle or across the border to Thailand, in a grisly re-enactment of large-scale displacements during the 1990s and later.

In August, the junta’s army made light work of a small ethnic Chinese or Kokang militia, but angered Beijing in the process. This was seen as a test run and a warning shot – aimed at unsettling the larger militias such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the Shan State Army – North (SSA-N). However these groups would be unlikely to cave in so quickly. Threats from Napyidaw, the new isolated jungle capital built by the regime, have prompted talk of a multi-ethnic alliance if the junta tries to settle the border guard issue by force.

Although the regime spends around 40 percent of its budget on defense and has a large standing army of over 400,000, the militias have between 40,000 and 50,000 fighters, and some are thought to be well-armed and well-funded through the drug trade and cross-border smuggling, especially into China.

The passing of the last deadline to stand down on 22 April has sparked unknown numbers of people to move closer to the Thai and Chinese borders, fearing that perhaps the junta has had enough.

Any conflict will have an impact on the election, forecast to some to take place on 10 October. That date – 10/10/10 – is apparently numerically auspicious, thereby guaranteeing a win for the regime.

No announcement has been made just yet, but the ruling generals, led by Sen General Than Shwe, are not placing all their chips on astrology in any case. The electoral laws stipulate that political prisoners cannot take part. The upshot is that Aung San Suu Kyi (currently under house arrest) and hundreds of others involved in the opposition cannot run – a fact that played a major role in Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) deciding to boycott the election.

Many ethnic parties – some linked to militia groups – have urged the same, as has Burma’s vocal exile lobby. Even the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) – a Karen militia that split from the parent Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and has fought with the junta against fellow Karen – is now balking at the border guard plan.

Tension is building, and in recent weeks four unexplained and fatal bomb attacks have hit different locations across the country, including during Thingyan (Buddhist New Year) celebrations in Rangoon. Without recourse to an investigation, the junta predictably blamed ethnic militias and exiled dissidents, prompting people to wonder what the response will be.

Some media reports and analysis expressed surprise at the bombings, saying that though oppression is rife, Burma is not known for political violence. But try telling that to some ethnic minorities who have fled in their hundreds of thousands during years of scorched earth campaigns by the junta’s army. A 2009 Harvard report compared the destruction to that wrought in Darfur, and the UN human rights point man on Burma reckons there could be a valid war crimes case against the junta.

The elections are part of the regime’s ‘seven step’ roadmap to democracy, and are framed by a 2008 Constitution, which was approved in a rigged referendum held in controversial circumstances mere days after over 140,000 people were killed as Cyclone Nargis swept across the Irrawaddy Delta.

Twenty-five percent of seats in the national and regional parliaments are reserved for the military, which will control key ministries. The Constitution states that the country will have one army under one command – so the junta wants the ethnic militias to fit in with what would set a new precedent in the Burma’s post-independence history. Never has the state controlled the whole of the country since the British withdrew in 1948. The country features over 130 ethnic groups, with the Burmese majority thought to make up around 60 percent of the population.

With Prime Minister and now former General Thein Sein and others hanging up their uniforms and jackboots, the military regime is set to launch an all-out campaign using a newly established political party called the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). This will deploy personnel and resources from its 24-million-member Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Already, the country’s state-controlled media feature reports showing regime figureheads starting community projects and pledging financial assistance.

The junta does not want to leave anything to chance. In the last elections in 1990, it felt confident that its National Unity Party would win easily, only for the NLD to sweep 80 percent of seats in a landslide that was never honored.

Than Shwe and company do not want to take their eyes off the ball this time around. They might not have it all their own way, though. Ethnic minority areas are unlikely to support the USDP en masse, and the junta will not be able to roll out the bribes and intimidation needed to shake down those votes.

On the other hand, some ethnic parties with links to the regime are being formed, while junta personnel from ethnic minorities may stand for the USDP in their homeland areas. But if more fighting ensues, it will be difficult to stage an election in these regions, given that tens of thousands of people, if not more, would be driven from their homes.

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