Why is Burma holding an election when the military junta has no intention of surrendering power?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 29 2010 7:22 AM

Why Is Burma Holding an Election?

The military junta has no intention of surrendering power.

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Since his appointment in 1992, Than Shwe's rule has followed the eccentric blend of traditional superstition, repression, and realpolitik that is the hallmark of Burmese politics. In November 2005, at a time and date recommended by astrologers (who may also have determined the Nov. 7 election date), Than Shwe shifted the country's capital from Rangoon to a patch of uninhabited scrubland in central Burma. The empty new city, dubbed Naypyidaw, or "seat of kings," was supposedly chosen for its remoteness, out of range of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Lacking a city center of any kind, it also provides something of a geographic prophylactic against domestic unrest, what one journalist described as a "the ultimate insurance against regime change." The hills around Naypyidaw are thought to be threaded with miles of underground tunnels, reportedly built with the aid of North Korean engineers.

In May of this year, reports surfaced about Burma's plans to develop nuclear weapons technology, also with North Korean help. Unsettlingly, Burmese leaders may be looking to Pyongyang for more than just nukes, viewing it as a model for long-term autarky and isolationism.

Despite Burma's seemingly inexorable drift into rogue-state status, observers are divided over what might result from the election. Some say that despite being carefully stage-managed, it could prompt gradual reforms, comparing Burma with countries such as Chile, Egypt, and Taiwan, which have slowly liberalized away from autocratic rule.

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Others hold fast to the idea of a boycott. Aung San Suu Kyi—under house arrest and barred from participating in the election after John Yettaw, a Mormon from Falcon, Miss., swam to her secluded lakeside residence in Rangoon in 2009—has urged Burmese citizens to stay home on Election Day, and international activists are running a campaign to ensure a low voter turnout.

The divide is also mirrored in the Burmese opposition movement: The largest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, is made up of ex-NLD members who refused to take part in a boycott. A raft of other opposition groups—many ethnically affiliated—are also contending the elections in the hope that they can gain some leverage over the direction of government.

But Burma's long-term stability may depend on the very thing that has troubled it most since it won independence from Britain in 1948: Its raft of simmering ethnic conflicts. In September, exile media outlets reported an increased flow of illicit drugs into Thailand from areas controlled by the United Wa State Army—thought by many to be one of the largest drug-trafficking organizations in the world—in anticipation of clashes with the Burmese army. The 20,000-strong UWSA, one of a number of ethnic militias to have signed cease-fire agreements with the government in exchange for local autonomy, has been ordered to join a centralized border guard force. So far, the UWSA and several other groups have refused, setting the stage for a possible return to open conflict.

It's too soon to say what a "democracy with Burmese characteristics" might look like in practice, but the signs so far are not especially promising.

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Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.