Asia-Pacific

Burma sets 7 November date for first poll in 20 years

Burmese read news of the election in Rangoon, 12 August
Image caption A brief announcement of the date was made through state media

Burma's first general election for two decades will be held on 7 November, the ruling generals have announced, ending months of speculation.

The poll is the first since pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in 1990.

The military never allowed her party to take power, and it has been disbanded.

Critics say this election will be a sham, because of poll laws which favour the authorities.

A new constitution reserves 25% of the new parliament for the military, and several of the parties registered for the polls are also viewed as proxies of the military.

Ms Suu Kyi, who has spent much of the past 20 years in jail or under house arrest, is barred from standing because of past criminal convictions, as are many other pro-democracy activists.

One party not linked to the military has already complained to the Election Commission that its members are being intimidated.

Control fears

The Election Commission made a brief statement on state-controlled radio and TV announcing the poll date.

"Multi-party general elections for the country's parliament will be held on Sunday, 7 November," the announcement said.

International observers have roundly criticised extensive controls placed by the military on the campaign.

Election laws announced in March ban anyone with a criminal conviction from being a member of a political party.

This rules out most leading pro-democracy activists, including Ms Suu Kyi - whose latest term of house arrest expires on 13 November, just days after the polls.

Members of religious orders are also not allowed to take part - ruling out the monks who led anti-government protests in 2007.

Other campaign rules bar political parties from chanting, marching or saying anything at rallies that could damage the country's image.

The NLD opposed the rules and announced it would boycott the election. It was then officially disbanded in May because it refused to register.

A splinter group, the National Democratic Force (NDF), has since formed and received permission to run in the elections, alongside at least 40 other parties.

NDF chairman Dr Than Nyein has expressed optimism that the elections could bring change.

But after the poll date was set he told the Reuters news agency that his party would struggle to meet a 30 August deadline to submit a candidate list.

"Before we submit the list, we have so many things to do including raising funds. How can we carry out these things in about 20 days?"

'Orchestrated'

BBC South East Asia correspondent Rachel Harvey says the diplomatic community is split between those who think the election will be a complete sham and those who believe that, however flawed, it could be the start of a process of much-needed change.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), of which Burma is a member, has repeatedly called for the polls to be free, fair and inclusive.

The United States, European Union and other states have imposed sanctions on Burma's military rulers for their failure to pursue democratic reforms.

"We certainly do not have any expectation that what proceeds in Burma here will be anything that remotely resembles a free, fair or legitimate result," the US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said last month.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asian division, described the election process as "orchestrated".

"This is all about transitioning from a military government to a military-controlled civilian government," he said.