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 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 military rule 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 to hear they picked up 80 percent of the seats this time round.
(picture: SOE THAN WIN/AFP/Getty Images)
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, 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 takes the Government’s side when it is forced to take a side at all. 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 National League for Democracy led by the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi boycotted the election thought a breakaway offshoot called the National Democratic Front contested it. With no press, no charismatic leader, no scrutiny of the polls and ten times fewer candidates, they were trounced. “The Burmese junta hosted this election in order to whitewash itself internationally,” said a banana seller at a market near Rangoon.

The election gives the regime 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 by turning the other cheek to members’ 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 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 to buy 20 MiG-29 jet fighters for 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 Asian leaders get cosy with the 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 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 does not want a new Karen state, but unrest at the Mae Sot-Myawaddy crossing is causing economic losses estimated at 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 revolts. 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 fear it will be overthrown. The paranoid tragedy that is Burma’s politics still has a few acts to go before the curtain falls.

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