Asia-Pacific

Burmese exiles sceptical ahead of poll

Members of Burma's newly-formed opposition party National Democratic Force (NDF) during the opening ceremony of their party office in Bago
Image caption A breakaway opposition party created by former NLD members is standing in the election

With Burma due to hold its first elections in 20 years, many commentators are already saying the vote will be neither free nor fair.

A quarter of seats in the new parliament will go to the army, and many candidates in parties set up by the military, the strongest and best-funded, have recently given up their uniforms in order to stand.

The high cost of fielding candidates and tough new laws means many elected seats will be fought by no real opposition.

But opinion among Burmese exiles, commentators, international politicians, historians and academics is split over whether the 7 November ballot should be condemned as undemocratic or welcomed as an opportunity for change.

Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and author, supports the United Nations and foreign governments who push for improved human rights, but he suggests they need to be more realistic about how much political change can happen in the next few years.

"I think what might be much more possible would be some changes in economic policies which might end up benefiting ordinary people," he said.

"We have tried for 20 years through this front door of political change and one could argue we have gotten not very far.

"With sanctions and the withdrawal of Western companies, the West has more or less dealt itself out of the game."

The main economic influence in Burma is now China, with billions of dollars worth of investment in the country's raw materials, hydroelectric power and in a pipeline being built to link China to the Bay of Bengal.

Those in the US urging a policy of engagement rather than isolation have cited China's growing influence as an important reason to improve relations with Burma.

"If this door of some sort of economic change is even half open it's worth trying, again not to devalue or give up on ideas of democratic change, but because it may be easier to fight for some kind of economic change," said Thant Myint-U.

Principled opposition

He argues that increasing the right kind of trade and business links will help the middle class to grow and create new dynamics. But in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, exiled Burmese politicians disagree.

"We decided to boycott because we wanted to show the election will be undemocratic and we want to stick with the 1990 election results," said Nyo Ohn Myint, representing foreign affairs for the National League for Democracy outside of Burma.

The NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi's party, won the last election but the result was not recognised by the ruling generals.

The party decided not to take part in this year's poll because it would mean accepting the annulment of the 1990 ballot and the restrictive new laws laid out in the 2008 constitution.

"It will be a very undemocratic, unfair and unfree election with no media freedom, no freedom to campaign.

"It is just cosmetic, as the regime will change from a military uniform to a civilian uniform, so I don't see any reform or any positive signs will come before, during or after the elections."

Scepticism rules

The Irrawaddy magazine has many online readers inside and outside of Burma and, from exile in Thailand, is a strong critic of the ruling generals and the election process.

Aung Zaw is the editor, and has set up a new blog ahead of the vote. He is very sceptical about the whole process.

"We still have over 2,000 political prisoners who won't be participating in this election. I think it is just to keep the military dictatorship with a civilian face," he said.

Aung Zaw believed the transition to democracy could be "bumpy, if not bloody" because - he says - many Burmese politicians as well as ethnic leaders have been sidelined.

"There are tensions rising in the ethnic groups who are buying arms and will never trust the military leaders.

"I don't think the election will be free and fair. It will not bring any legitimacy, but at the same time governments in the region are likely to prop up and support the election outcome and may think the election is the only game in town."

Role for Suu Kyi?

Aung Naing Oo was a student who fled Burma after violent clashes with the military in 1988 and is now a political scientist based in Chiang Mai.

He believes human rights abuses will remain but says the election "will be a first tiny step on a long, long road to democracy".

Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy icon who has spent most of the past 20 years under house arrest, is due to be release on 13 November.

Image caption Aung San Suu Kyi is due to be released after the election on 13 November

She has taken her NLD out of the political protest on ideological grounds, and Aung Naing Oo is among those asking what her position will be if she is released.

"I don't see her playing a formal political role, but a very important role outside of the constitution," he said.

"She is a very rare kind of politician - untainted - and in a country like Burma with the worst corruption in the world we need someone to look up to. Politics is very dirty.

"Some Burmese liken her to Nelson Mandela but I don't see it that way. To me she is not very pragmatic in terms of her leadership - Aung San Suu Kyi has been unable to translate her popularity, or even her election win in 1990, into power.

"But in her role as a Nobel laureate and daughter of our national hero, she will play a very important role in the country."

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