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POLITICS-BURMA: A Poll, Yes, But Not Political Change

IPS Correspondents

RANGOON, Mar 19 2010 (IPS) - In teashops and markets, the national election due this year in Burma is the talk of the town, so much so that Thuzar, who did not take part in the 1990 poll, is quite eager to cast her vote this time.

The government of this military-ruled country has not yet disclosed the date of the poll, although it announced the long-awaited election law on Mar. 8. It also remains unclear how many political parties will register for it by the May 7 deadline, even as opposition groups this week called for a boycott of the vote and a rejection of the 2008 Constitution under which it is being held.

But 42-year-old Thuzar, a cloth vendor in the market here in the former capital, already knows how she will vote. “I will vote for one party which is not backed by the government. I heard that the Union Solidarity and Development Association (a pro-junta group) will establish two or three parties. I will avoid those parties,” she said. “My vote surely will not be for them.”

Her remarks are a sample of the mix of sentiments here in the wake of the Burmese government’s announcement of the election law, which is the clearest sign to date that the vote – the first since 1990 – is going to being held.

Many are also looking to see how what has been interpreted as a ban on pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s taking part in the vote will play out.

Many analysts and media say that the electoral law’s provision barring people who had been convicted of crimes effectively rules out participation by Suu Kyi, because she had been convicted on charges of violating her house arrest when U.S. national John William Yeattaw swam to her home last year.

This ban would cover many other dissidents as well. Likewise, the new law says that any party that recruits political prisoners as party members would not be eligible to register as such – in effect putting the political life of the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) in question.

“The election laws forbid Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s very rude and unacceptable. They think if the NLD doesn’t participate, they (the military) can take our votes,” says Pearl, a 52-year-old grocery store owner. “(But) they underestimate us. We have brains. They can’t take our votes by such means.”

Pearl voted for the NLD in the 1990 elections, but the junta refused to recognise that party’s victory. In fact, the junta officially annulled the results of that vote last week.

“I was very upset when the junta didn’t transfer the power to the NLD. Since then, I have no trust in the junta. They remain as crooked as ever. So, I don’t think the 2010 election will be free and fair,” she said. “I won’t give my vote to any party in this elections.”

“Without the lady and her party, election will be meaningless,” Thuzar added.

The issue of real participation by political parties is a key test for the election, which suffers from a huge credibility problem in the international community.

The Burmese government says the election is part of a seven-step ‘roadmap to democracy’ and had formulated a new term for what the 2010 vote would mean – “a discipline-flourishing democracy”.

“We are trying to run in the election in the whole country, but the given time frame (for registration) is very limited”, Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, general secretary of the Democratic Party, told IPS.

“There are many unjust points in the law, especially in the political party registration law. It’s a counter to the NLD to (make it) face a difficult situation,” prominent political journalist Maung Wun Tha told IPS.

“It would be very painful for the NLD if they have to expel political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Su Kyi, from the party in order to keep the existence of the NLD,” he added. “It shows their (junta) ignoring of the international pressure to hold inclusive elections.”

The announcement of the new election law has been followed by the release of information about how parties can register, the fees for this and the required recruitment of more than 1,000 members in a limited period of time.

But the law has drawn criticism from foreign governments including Britain, which this week asked United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an emergency meeting to discuss Burma’s poll given “the imposing restrictive and unfair terms on elections” the government has set.

Ban has set a meeting of the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar (Burma) for Mar. 25.

Critics also argue that the election law proves that despite having been urged by the United Nations and the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) to hold an election that is “as inclusive as possible”, Burma is not going to do that.

Far away from the halls of the United Nations in New York, Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein of the Democratic Party says she is not surprised by the election law.

“Our country is ruled by a military government and the laws are issued by this government. We cannot expect to get the full extent of democracy,” Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein explained. “As you know, they will give us only guided democracy. We will anyway take this opportunity to work for the people.”

A former political prisoner in his 40s says the election law crushed the little hope he had of some change coming from this year’s vote. “I did not expect such an unjust law which would only create political confrontation. I don’t think this law would lead to free and fair elections, and I’m not going to vote,” he said.

“I think there will be some protest before the election because I heard many people are not satisfied with the election process,” said taxi driver Aung Soe. “I have no idea which party to vote. This government wants us to vote only its party’s name similar to Ma Sa La (Burmese acronym for Burma Socialist Programme Party) under Ne Win’s government.”

This party was formed by the late dictator Ne Win after the 1962 military coup. It transformed the military administration into a one-party system that ruled the country for the next 26 years.

Ne Win was well known for his controversial ‘Burmese way to socialism’ approach. But this collapsed after 1988 pro-democracy uprising and paved the way for what in name is a multi-party system that still remains under military leadership.

Looking ahead, the journalist Maung Wun Tha says that the election may be held but would not mean much change. “The military leaders will continue holding power. They will use any chance, by hook or by crook, to get legitimacy in this election. They will become the military representing the government, but not representing the people.”

As for company employee Ma Soe, the vote never offered her a real choice. “I don’t know which parties the government will establish. Whatever party they establish, I will have to vote for their party. It’s because my brother is in the army. My brother-in-law is also in the army. Our family was told that we have to vote for them.”

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