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BURMA: Junta under Scrutiny for Concrete Pre-election Signs

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Nov 28 2009 (IPS) - In the wake of a meeting attended by the all-powerful military elite, Burma’s military regime is due to come under close scrutiny for concrete signs of change leading up to a promised general elections in 2010.

The weeklong gathering in Naypidaw, the administrative capital, is where the country’s strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, receives reports from senior officers in the military machine that dominates the South-east Asian country and then determines policies for the following four months.

There were close to 200 officers who attended this high-powered meeting, from Nov. 23 to 27, according to Win Min, a Burmese national security expert at Payap University in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

“Than Shwe has been normally holding these meetings once in four months. It draws in ministers of the military government, regional commanders, heads of the light infantry divisions and officers of brigadier general rank,” Win Min told IPS.

“Highest policy decisions are made here. Military reshuffles normally occur, but Than Shwe will keep people guessing till the very last minute about concrete moves. He prefers to take people by surprise. It is his military thinking.”

Among the announcements that diplomats following Burmese affairs are waiting to hear is Than Shwe’s order to military officers to enter the political field for the 2010 elections. “The order for senior military officers to change uniforms will be significant,” one Asian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IPS. “Who among them ordered to do so will also be revealing.”

Other more certain signs that the regime will go ahead with the election is the announcement of two election laws, the diplomat added. They are the law for the registration of political parties and the law governing the election process.

Until now, the junta’s commitment towards the poll to create a “discipline- flourishing democracy” has only been verbal assurances as part of its “roadmap” towards political reform in Burma, officially called Myanmar.

On Friday Than Shwe repeated this promise at a meeting of the Union of Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) held in Naypidaw to coincide with the meeting of the country’s military elite.

A free and fair election will be held in 2010 in keeping with the country’s new 2008 constitution, Than Shwe had told members of the USDA, according to Saturday’s edition of ‘The New Light of Myanmar,’ a junta mouthpiece.

Yet the strongman sounded a note of warning to the political parties that may vie in this long-awaited poll. They should not undermine the disintegration of the country and affect national solidarity, Than Shwe was reported as saying.

Than Shwe is the head of USDA, a civilian arm of the junta that is expected to play a pivotal role in the polls to avoid a repeat of the 1990 elections. At that poll, the last held in Burma, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, won with a massive mandate, which the junta refused to recognise.

The new constitution, which was approved in a deeply flawed referendum in May 2008, has other features to ensure that the military’s grip on power will remain even after the poll. The powerful army, with its nearly 450,000- strong troops, has been guaranteed 25 percent of all seats in the legislative bodies from the national to the village levels.

Although Western governments are aware of these anti-democratic features, they are increasingly open to engagement with the regime. Still unchanged, however, are the punitive economic sanctions that marked the hostile policy the United States and the European Union (EU) have towards Burma.

There are new opportunities for a breakthrough in the political deadlock in Burma, Piero Fassino, the EU special envoy to Burma, said in a statement Friday following mission through South-east Asia. The Italian politician was encouraged by the prospect of a dialogue involving the junta.

Fassino’s views add to the softer line taken by the administration of U.S. President Barak Obama on Burma. The latter’s policy shift to engage with Burma has seen an encounter between the U.S. leader and Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein at a regional summit in Singapore in mid- November.

That landmark meeting—the first by a U.S. president in over 40 years— followed a visit to Burma in October by Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, who became the highest-ranking official from Washington to visit Burma in 14 years.

Campbell’s visit included a nearly two-hour meeting with Suu Kyi, who has spent over 14 of her last 20 years under detention.

For her part, Suu Kyi has used the momentum towards engagement to write to Than Shwe, seeking a meeting between the two. The Nobel Peace laureate’s letter reportedly expressed a willingness to “cooperate” to end the stalemate between the junta and the NLD leader.

The last time the two met was in 2002 in Rangoon, the former Burmese capital. But Suu Kyi has met with a government minister appointed as the junta’s liaison officer seven times in the past two years, the most recent in October.

The changes in the international community’s thinking towards Burma served as a backdrop for the just concluded meeting of the country’s military elite.

“The military government could not ignore this during this week’s meeting,” said Zin Linn, information director for the National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma, the government elected in 1990 currently in exile.

“There is some pressure and expectations of change from the international community,” he told IPS. “The military government has to decide how they will deal with Aung San Suu Kyi and how they will manage (the country’s) political affairs during the election year.”

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