Asia-Pacific

Indifferent mood greets Burma polls

Top leader Than Shwe (C) with deputy Maung Aye (R) and Thura Shwe Mann (L) in a file image from 11 March 2006
Image caption Many Burmese people think the same faces will be in power after the polls

There are six weeks to go before Burma's first election in 20 years, but many feel that the result is already clear.

Although over 30 political parties will contest the 1,163 seats in the national and regional parliaments, most people believe that the same faces that rule Burma now will be in power after the polls.

The government has founded its own political party - the Union Solidarity and Development Party - headed by the incumbent prime minister.

Most ministers and senior military officers who in recent weeks have resigned from their army positions will run for the USDP.

While other parties struggle to find enough candidates, the USDP is the only party that will contest all constituencies.

The election law provides that when there is only one candidate in a constituency then that candidate will be declared the winner. This means that the government party has already bagged a number of seats even before elections are held.

These seats will be supplemented by the 25% of seats guaranteed under the new constitution for the military, which means unelected military officers will sit in parliament.

The prevailing mood among the electorate in Burma is mostly of indifference.

Ko Zaw, a Rangoon resident, told the BBC: "I have no interest in the elections. I don't believe anything will change after the polls. The generals have made sure that they will stay in power."

Intimidation

The elections have been mired in controversy from the outset.

The political party that overwhelmingly won the last elections in 1990 but was never allowed to govern, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has decided not to take part, citing the undemocratic nature of the junta-approved constitution.

Image caption Prominent pro-democracy names - including Aung San Suu Kyi's - are not on the electoral register

It argues that the elections will merely cement the military's continued hold on power.

Last week, the government's election commission formally disbanded the party because it had not registered for the polls.

The NLD has been calling on people not to vote in the elections.

Articles in state-run newspapers have threatened NLD leaders with prison terms for disrupting the electoral process.

Other parties have also complained that the government party is enjoying unfair privileges.

While many parties are struggling to find money to campaign, the USDP has access to unlimited state funds. Ministers can use state facilities to campaign in their constituencies.

Parties have also complained of their supporters being harassed by the authorities.

"When we went to an area to explain our party policies to the residents, police followed us and watched closely," said Aye Lwin, chairman of the Union of Myanmar Federation of National Politics.

"After we left the area, those who came to the meeting were questioned by local authorities. This intimidates those who want to support us."

Despite all this, some believe elections offer a space, an opening for political movement.

"We know these elections will not bring about a democratic government straight away," said Thein Nyunt, a leader of the National Democratic Front, founded by former NLD members.

"But this is the only opening at the moment available in the country. It's not right to talk now about what we cannot do in the parliament. We have not been there yet."

But others warn that the parties which do take part give the elections the hint of legitimacy which the junta desperately wants, when the shape of the future parliament is already clear.

The military regime which has ruled Burma since 1988 will come to an end after the elections but a new form of civilianised military rule will certainly continue.

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