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.

Senior General Than Shwe.
Senior Gen. Than Shwe

On Nov. 2, American voters will go to the polls to elect 435 members of the House of Representatives and 37 senators. Just five days later, on the other side of the world, a country of 56 million will hold elections for just the second time in 48 years. As the campaigns in both countries heat up, it's a fair bet that Burma's aging military dictator, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, is sleeping more soundly than certain Democratic members of Congress.

As predictable as Burma's election outcome might be, it is likely to attract considerable international press coverage. The last time Burmese politics made headlines, in 2007, thousands of monks were swarming into the streets of Rangoon, the country's largest city and former capital. The mass protests, which snowballed into the weeklong "saffron revolution," were put down with brutal force by the country's military junta, which bludgeoned and gunned down dozens of unarmed protestors, including a Japanese photojournalist.

Now, three years on, the government is seeking a mandate at the ballot box. Why, after 48 years of autocratic misrule, are Burma's military rulers holding elections?

One thing is clear: The junta is less interested in establishing a true democracy than in making a bid for international legitimacy and buying off dissent with cosmetic reforms. The junta's three-front war—against the pro-democracy movement, ethnic minority unrest, and international opprobrium—could all be advanced, if only marginally, by a stamp of democratic legitimacy.

The elections are the culmination of a planned road map to "discipline-flourishing genuine multi-party democracy," as the regime puts it. Whatever that means in practice, a key concern is to win convincingly—and at whatever cost. At the last election, in 1990, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy routed the junta, winning 392 of the 447 available seats. On that occasion, the military brushed off the results and continued to rule through the Orwellian-sounding State Law and Order Restoration Council, since rebranded the State Peace and Development Council.

A new constitution, approved in 2008, ensures that even the worst-case scenario will pan out for the generals. One-quarter of the seats in two houses of parliament are reserved for hand-picked military candidates, while electoral rules bar Suu Kyi and more than 200 jailed NLD members from running. Members of the military brass have already shed their uniforms and taken up posts in the Union Solidarity and Development Party, a junta front. The USDP, along with other proxies, will field candidates in every part of the country, more than three times as many as the other 35 parties combined.

While the West is unlikely to accept the outcome as legitimate—in March, a U.S. State Department spokesman referred to the electoral rules as a "mockery of the democratic process"—Burma's Asian neighbors, many of which have questionable democratic credentials, may use the elections as an excuse for getting the Burma issue—a perennial embarrassment—off the agenda of international summits.

Sean Turnell, a Burma expert based at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, says the elections are geared toward creating "a fig leaf of international legitimacy" for the embattled junta. "The election will be a farce—but this might be the sort of farce some countries can use to exploit economic opportunities and the like," he says. It might also be used as a pretext for the transition of power from the current generation of generals—most of whom are in their 70s—to a new coterie of military officers.

On the face of it, the junta's recent behavior—leavened by paranoia and a certain surrealistic twist—suggests few reforms are on the horizon. Gen. Than Shwe, the junta's primus inter pares, is an obscure figure, appearing behind sunglasses in uniforms dripping with medals. In a recent biography, one diplomat describes him as having "no evident personality," but he is a master of political manipulation dedicated to preserving his grip on power.

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.

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.