Simon Roughneen in Bangkok – Today Burma goes to polls in what most observers are dismissing as a sham aimed at putting a civilian varnish on continued military dictatorship. Most of the candidates taking part are recently-resigned soldiers, or are backed by the military, which in any case has a reserved quota of 25% of parliamentary seats. Key ministries are ring-fenced for the army, while the commander-in-chief will have the option to annul the civilian government based on an arbitrary assessment of national security.
In total, genuine opposition parties will contest only one-third of the remainder 75% of seats which are up for grabs. To illustrate, the army’s Union Solidarity and Development Party will field candidates for almost all 1,158 seats at regional, lower and upper house levels. However, the largest opposition party, the National Democratic Front, can muster a meagre 163, hampered by restrictive electoral laws and campaign curbs. The onerous US$500 registration per candidate is more than the average GDP per capita in one of the few Asian countries where poverty equals or exceeds sub-Saharan Africa, despite billions earned in oil and gas revenues from sales to Thailand, China and India.
In recent days, undercover Burmese reporters have relayed details of massive pre-election ballot-rigging and forced voting to colleagues here in Thailand. The end of the week saw internet and mobile phone connections closed down, an apparent attempt to prevent the type of citizen reporting that saw footage of the 2007 monk-led Saffron protests leaked out to international news networks. Foreign media cannot enter Burma to cover the elections, though many have tried, with this correspondent among the many denied a visa recently.
Some of Burma’s opposition, ethnic and activist leaders are based in Thailand, after fleeing their homeland. Many were tortured and imprisoned by the junta. Around 140,000 Burmese refugees are in camps in northern Thailand, though 178 have resettled in Ireland. Inside Burma, around 500,000 people live rough in the country’s jungles, hiding from army depredations.
Over 2100 dissidents are locked up, though the junta denies that there are any political prisoners. Bo Kyi, a former detainee and founder of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, says that “torture and years of solitary confinement are the norm for political prisoners”, with medical treatment non-existent and allegations that some detainees are as young as 14.
The best-known dissident is Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate and victor in the last election held in the country. She will not participate in today’s poll as she remains under house arrest, where she has spent most of the two decades since the junta refused to recognise her National League for Democracy’s 1990 landslide. The NLD was dissolved according to the 2010 electoral laws after Suu Kyi urged her party to boycott the election, which she deemed a charade. She is due to be released from house arrest on November 13.
The army has been in power since 1962, seizing control after civilian politicians met to discuss how to create a federal Burma – an arrangement long-sought by the country’s powerful, armed ethnic minorities. 60% of the country is Burmese, but the people living along the borders with China, Thailand and India belonging to groups such as the Karen, Shan, Kachin, and Mon.
Twelve countries have backed a call for an investigation into war crimes committed by the junta, which has carried out brutal scorched earth campaigns in the ethnic regions, destroying more villages in eastern Burma than those obliterated in Sudan’s Darfur region, according to a Harvard Law School report published in 2009. Six of the largest ethnic militia groups, partly-funded by drug trafficking, and combining 60-80,000 soldiers, have pledged a united front if – as expected – the army attacks during the weeks after the election.
Ruling strongman Senior-General Than Shwe recently unveiled a new national flag and renamed the country “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”, in a bizarre ceremony apparently aimed at negating the perceived bad karma caused by the army’s brutal attacks on Buddhist monks in 2007. Around 90% of Burmese are Buddhist, but the ruling elites engage in arcane forms of astrology, numerology and folksy superstition.
According to Burmese academic Maung Zarni of the London School of Economics, such utilisation of the occult for political ends is a sign of insecurity, underneath the vestiges of absolute power. “The Generals have fortified themselves with a massive military build-up and alliances with the likes of North Korea”, he said, “and the astrological dimension corresponds to this psychological vulnerability”.Show