Burma's strange election

One week after the onslaught of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the military junta holds a referendum about its new constitution. In these circumstances the people, millions of whose lives have been thrown into tragedy, don't pay much attention to it. Nevertheless the constitution is approved by more than 90 percent of the people. There is not a single independent observer to give credit to this result. And now the junta has decided on another vote: it will hold a general election on November 7, the first for 20 years.

So, unsurprisingly some posters have popped up on the walls with the words "No 2010 election." on Oct. 20 in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, and the feeling extends much beyond the Kachin state. Nonetheless in a recent trip to Rangoon to assess conditions in advance of the election I have met a few people who expect some improvement in terms of freedom of expression and democracy after the election and consider it a first step. They may be wrong, but the perception here inside Burma is sometimes slightly different from the one we have in the West.

"I hope and altogether I don't dare to," said Thu Wai*, a Burmese student. “Nevertheless I will go to the ballot." He has some hope, he says, although like the whole of the Burmese population he feels strangled by the military junta, which forbids the Burmese to accommodate foreigners overnight, censors systematically the media, denounces as criminal the BBC and puts in jail scores of journalists and activists.

Other people have some hope too. For instance Nay Ye, a blogger who, if he is caught may spend years in jail for criticizing the government on Internet, not to mention the same for talking to a foreign journalist. He is kind of optimistic: "I support the election," he says. “There will be a Parliament, it may bring some improvement."

Some will cast ballots, some won't

Aung Lin is a journalist, a jobless journalist because the junta has closed his journal. After the saffron revolution in September 2007 he was been accused without evidence of providing news to foreign media and sent to jail for a year and seven months.

"Before giving the sentence, the judges opened an envelope from the government with the sentence he was supposed to decide," he says. "The 2008 Constitution is not democratic. I will boycott the election. But I don't object other people going for it, some people believe in it and it may be a chance for the expression of some opposition in the Parliament."

Phyo Win works as a translator; he too will boycott the election. He too mentions the Constitution: "It's not fair, one out of four seats is for the military." And there is something else: "The National League for Democracy (NLD) will not participate." The National League for Democracy (NLD) is Aung San Suu Kyi's party. She is the symbol of the resistance against the junta and a former Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The NLD won the 1990 election in a landslide, but the power-mad generals have clung to power and there has been no election since. The NLD considers the election to be phony and therefore has decided not to register. The junta reacted and dissolved the party. And Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest, which strangely will end just one week after the election.

A dissident group of NLD members believe it's a better choice to run for the election. It has set up a party, the National Democratic Force (NDF) in order to make their voices heard in the future parliament. But it cannot expect much room there: it's short of resources and it will field candidates in just about 160 constituencies, compared to more than 1,100 for the junta's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and nearly 1,000 for the National Unity Party (NUP), a party close to the junta – although that is denied by its spokesperson and despite some infighting. As a whole, 37 parties will run for the election, but except for the junta proxy USDP and the junta-friendly NUP they run for peanuts because they cannot register enough candidates: each of them must pay a US$500 registration tax, a huge amount in a country where most civil servants earn less than $50 a month. So it's a one horse race.

The USDP gets public money from the state even if the electoral law forbids it. It's powerful and it has the tools and means to shut the mouth of those who disagree. Consider this: a cartoon by the weekly Favorite News, slightly critical of this party, passed the censors. The USDP complained. As a result Favorite News has been suspended for two weeks. It can be concluded that the censor board works for the USDP.

Because of this cartoon the magazine Favorite News has been suspended for 2 weeks. Dialogue: The candidate (a soldier): If we win life will improve for the people! The child: Really? Roadblocks for Opposition Meetings

To set up a public meeting is hard work: authorization should be requested at least one week in advance and the form should include the number of attendees. Any party publication must pass the censors and is forbidden to be critical towards the government. TV and radio broadcasting must be recorded and approved by the government controlled Electoral Commission. Election posters are expensive; most posters I have seen in Rangoon belong to the pro-government USDP party.

So the election looks a bit like the fight of David and Goliath, but here Goliath, the UNDP, is deemed to win. Except for the military that get a quarter of the seats, the parliament will be mainly filled with its members. In order to give a more civilian look to the next government, Senior Gen Than Shwe and about 20 generals have retired from the military. From the Parliament they will jump again to the highest positions in the government.

"The election, it's just a change of suits by the military," says Thu Wai, the student who will nevertheless go to the poll.

Most people do not understand the complexities of the electoral system. The government provides little information and the opposition parties have no resources for that. In Rangoon I met an underground satellite dish seller (satellite dishes are everywhere) who explains that satellite dishes are forbidden, but can be easily bought under the counter, which the government doesn't mind for the time being.

What's his opinion about the election? "I'm not interested, I have no information. I will vote, but I still don't know for which party."

The general population doesn't expect much from the election. Most don't care about it and don't understand the system, which is not so easy to understand either. Mrs Da Wint lives in a village close to Rangoon. She doesn't have a TV or a radio and the newsstand is a bit far from her place, so she doesn't know much about what's going on outside her village.

"I know nothing about the election," she says. “I will follow the advice given by the officials." Her 13 years old daughter has spent just two years in school. She works as a servant for US$20 a month. If she wants to take leave she has to ask permission from her boss (he usually agrees). She doesn't seem to care about the election.

Nevertheless, just like the taxi driver who exclaimed when driving close to University Avenue where Aung San Suu Kyi is in house arrest: "A strong lady lives here", everybody speaks with huge respect of the "The Lady". She is the legitimate leader of Burma, she has not been allowed to register for the election – the junta has taken no risk.

Patrice Victor is a freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers in Europe who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He went recently undercover in Burma.

* All names have been changed so as to not to expose people who talked to us.