Burmese hold elections for first time in 20 years

By Tim Johnston
Monday, November 8, 2010; 1:20 AM

The Burmese voted Sunday for the first time in 20 years in parliamentary elections that guarantee victory for allies of the military rulers, but which analysts say could present an opportunity for progress.

There was little evidence of enthusiasm among voters for a deeply flawed process that critics say is designed to entrench the military's 48-year grip on power. Several Rangoon residents said it felt like a normal Sunday in the city, only quieter.

"You would have expected that had the campaign been run in a proper free and fair way, there would be a real sense of anticipation and excitement on the ground," said Andrew Heyn, the British ambassador in Rangoon, who visited polling stations Sunday morning.

"The reality is that we are not seeing that at all," Heyn said. "There is a sense that people are going through the motions of the process with a presumption that the outcome is predetermined."

Indicative national results are not expected until Monday evening at the earliest. The Union Solidarity and Development Party and the National Unity Party, both of which are pro-regime and fielded 80 percent of the candidates, were widely predicted to win comfortably, a reflection less of the will of the Burmese people than of a rigged system.

But many analysts believe that even if the result is a foregone conclusion, any process that leads to a dilution of military control presents the best opportunity for progress in years.

"There may be slightly more political space if the other parties win some seats," said Donna Guest, the deputy director of Amnesty International's Asia program and a longtime Burma watcher. The junta refers to the country as Myanmar.

Parliament's powers are defined by the new constitution, which is vague and mandates an extensive role for the military.

To cement the junta's continued control, 25 percent of seats in both the two new national assemblies and the 14 regional parliaments are reserved for the military.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader whose party won a landslide victory the last time Burma voted, in 1990, and who remains the most potent electoral threat to the regime, did not run.

She declined to vote, and her National League for Democracy Party chose dissolution rather than giving tacit approval to a flawed process by participating.

Suu Kyi remains under house arrest , where she has spent 15 of the last 20 years, but her most recent sentence is due to end Saturday. The regime has said it will release her.

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