Post-Election Scenario Unclear

Many expect the military junta-backed party to win Burma's elections but are unsure of the political dynamic after the polls.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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Suu-Kyi-305.jpg Aung San Suu Kyi during a meeting with Burma’s labor minister, Jan. 30, 2008.

What happens after the weekend elections in military-ruled Burma is expected to be more exciting that the outcome itself.

Although not a single serving military officer is running in the Nov. 7 elections, there is little doubt that any civilian government installed for the first time in almost half a century in that country will be military-controlled.

Army supremo Than Shwe has stacked the cards in the junta's favour: a constitution that has barred his popular but detained rival Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting and  that has reserved 25 percent of the elected legislature for the military.

Other rules also make it difficult for the opposition parties that entered the race to score major gains, paving the way for the junta-backed and resource-rich Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to emerge tops.

USDP's closest rival, the National Unity Party, is also military-linked. The opposition party was spinned off from the former Burmese Socialist Program Party founded by ex-dictator General Ne Win.

But despite the military's imposing shadow and in the absence of independent monitors and media, there seems to be cautious optimism that the elections could set the pace for the long search for democracy.

"Even a sham election can provide a small opportunity to contribute to change in Burma," said an editorial in Irrawaddy, a website run by exiled Burmese journalists, ahead of the elections.

"Change will come to Burma not because of a sham election but because of the people’s inspiration," it said. "Now is the time to shake up Burma’s military dictatorship and politics of stalemate."

Suu Kyi to be released?

There is also growing optimism that the military will release Suu Kyi when her latest house arrest term expires on Nov. 13, just six days after the elections.

The youngest son of the 65-year-old opposition leader has travelled from Britain to Bangkok in a bid to obtain a visa at the Burmese embassy to see her for the first time in a decade, reports have said.

Kim Aris, 33, last saw his mother in December 2000 and has repeatedly been denied visas by the Burmese government to see the pro-democracy leader. His trip all the way to Bangkok lifts hopes this time. 

A post-election release for Suu Kyi will raise the political temperatures in Burma. She is not expected to throw in the towel after all the sacrifices in her uphill bid to bring change to her country.

Her lawyer Nyan Win said Suu Kyi wants to get a Twitter account once she is released from house arrest so she can get in touch with the younger generation after years of isolation. She has been in prison or under house arrest for 15 years in the past two decades.

Military strongman's future

Junta officials have also indicated to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma is a member, that Than Shwe might step down as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and relinquish power to a younger generation of trusted lieutenants.

It is not known whether any power transfer will lead to reforms or even more repressive rule.

The ailing 77-year-old is not running as a candidate in the election but he may become president – a post created by the 2008 constitution.

How the new Burmese leadership behaves after the elections will also influence the future of sanctions that have long been imposed by Western powers.

Although the United States has criticized the elections as a sham, it has not ruled out working with the new leadership.

The period "after the election might create new players, power relationships, new structures inside the country," said Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the most senior envoy to visit Burma under President Barack Obama's new engagement policy with the pariah state.

"We think we need to stand by and see how that plays out,” Campbell said.

Asia-West split

Andrew Heyn, the British ambassador in Rangoon, is less optimistic.

Citing the junta's "dreadful record" on the economy and democracy and human rights, he said a truly accountable government could help to change this.

"But with the current military leadership looking set to retain its grip on power in a civilian guise, the hope of better political and economic future remains a distant dream," Heyn said in a blogpost.

In fact, the post election scenario could see a bigger split between the Western powers and Asia over Burma policy.

"Officials on both sides of the Pacific have expressed fears that divisions between the U.S. and European Union on the one hand and ASEAN and Asia Pacific powers on the other will widen over recognition over a new government in Myanmar (Burma) after the election," according to a recent analysis by Catharin Dalpino, a Southeast Asian expert at Johns Hopkins University.



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