The World after Burma's Sham Election

Burma's national elections, held Nov. 7, leave the country's military free to reshuffle its control over the biggest country in mainland Southeast Asia, while the muzzled opposition expects a continuation of human rights violations, US-led economic sanctions, and China's increased influence.

The results are not expected to be announced until later this week. But if anything, it is difficult to understand why the junta bothered to go ahead with the election, which was so blatantly stacked to keep the military in power.

It certainly didn't fool any major western leaders, who denounced the polls as rigged. The junsta claimed that the British Broadcasting Corp., Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia told the Burmese not to vote. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party boycotted the polls because she was prevented from standing as a candidate according to a constitution created in 2008 by the army, which also blocked freedom of speech, normal political campaigning, and other democratic freedoms.

Under the constitution, the military's candidates are to be given 25 percent of parliament's seats in advance, ensuring their power because any constitutional change requires a majority of more than 75 percent. If they win 26 percent of the elected seats in each of the parliament's bicameral assemblies, as expected, they would also enjoy simple majorities, combining with the 25 percent guaranteed seats to achieve 51 percent of parliament.

The election "will mean the return to power of a brutal regime that has pillaged the nation's resources and overseen widespread human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, rape and torture," said Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague. Some 2,100 political prisoners, many of them allies of Suu Kyi, remain in Burmese jails.

It also appears that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has been attempting to bring Burma into respectability since the pariah nation joined Asean in 1997, has no choice but to tolerate the results, given the 10-member association's policy of "constructive engagement, although so far that policy has little to show for it. Burma has never yielded to any of Asean's most lukewarm demands, and shows no sign of doing it now. Asean members will probably hold their collective nose and welcome the sham election as a "first step towards democracy," which it surely isn't.

Certainly, US President Barack Obama's attempt to woo the Burmese regime through his own "pragmatic engagement" is in ruins. The junta has ignored US proposals for a national dialogue involving all political and ethnic groups and instead moved ahead to put election machinery in place that made it impossible for anybody but the junta to win, leaving Washington in a quandary. The US and the European Union are considering how to deal with the new regime amid concern that China is continuing to tighten its military, economic and diplomatic relations with the resource-rich country in an effort to secure natural gas, oil, and a strategic southern overland route to Burma's Bay of Bengal coast.

Thailand and India are also able to share available contracts without competing with US and European firms which are mostly blocked from doing business with the shunned nation.

That doesn't mean the US is out of the picture. The US energy giant Chevron is helping to finance Burma's regime through its investment in Burma's controversial Yadana natural gas pipeline. Washington allows the deal, because it was signed by Chevron's predecessor Unocal before the US toughened its economic sanctions on Burma in the 1990s.

"The Yadana natural gas pipeline – operated by the French oil giant Total, with the American company Chevron, and the Thai company PTTEP – has generated nearly US$8 billion in gas sales since payments commenced just a decade ago," wrote Matthew Smith, Senior Consultant of EarthRights International, a Washington-based nongovernmental advocacy group which opposes the pipeline.

The winners will fill a newly built national parliament's 224-seat Nationalities Assembly with 168 elected candidates, alongside 56 military appointees. Other winners will occupy parliament's 440-seat People's Assembly, with 330 elected plus 110 appointed by the military. The election also included 14 regional assemblies.

It is unsure how many of the 29 million eligible voters cast ballots. Reports from a team of reporters covering the elections undercover for independent media indicated that fear, indecision and confusion marked the election amid light voter turnout and widespread allegations of fraud. In contrast to the 1990 polls that produced an overwhelming victory for democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, there were no long lines like in 1990, when the last polls were held.

Although many people went to the polls because they were afraid not to, given an overwhelming government campaign to force them to, a large number either cast blank ballots or deliberately spoiled them, the reporting team said.

Thus it remains to be seen what number of the total 1,159 seats were won by the military's candidates in the powerful Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP's main rival was the National Unity Party (NUP) which contested 999 of the constituencies. Both parties, however, enjoyed the backing of the military, including generals who ran in the 1990 polls, when most of them suffered defeat. Combined, the two represent two-thirds of all candidates, and some ran unopposed.

Burma's hated leader, Gen. Than Shwe, did not run in the election, perhaps fearing that voters would either vote against him or boycott the polls where he would run. He could be voted into power by parliament, and most observers are certain that he will be.

Sunday's election also included a small number of candidates not supported by the military. A tiny National Democratic Force contested only 164 seats, led by candidates who broke away from Suu Kyi's party, which the regime recently disbanded because it boycotted the polls. A minority ethnic Shan Nationalities Democratic Party tried for 157 seats in Shan state, where insurgents have fought for more than 60 years, often while smuggling opium to finance their failed bids for autonomy or independence. A smaller Union of Burma Federation of National Politics opposition party ran in 51 constituencies. About 30 other minor parties contested the polls.

In some mountainous insurgent-wracked regions, mostly along Burma's eastern and northern borders, the government disenfranchised about 1.5 million minority ethnic voters, because their regions were deemed too dangerous to allow voting.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com. With reporting from a team of undercover reporters for independent news outlets.