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.

Opposition parties have struggled to overcome a series of constitutional and regulatory hurdles to get to Sunday's vote. Although there have been rumors of irregularities elsewhere in the country, observers said there was little sign of overt intimidation Sunday to vote for the pro-junta parties in Rangoon.

"The cynical interpretation is that it's 'job done' in that regard," Heyn said. He said that many voters were nervous that authorities would be able to track their votes and were worried about the consequences should they be found to have voted for the opposition.

Than Nyein, chairman of the National Democratic Force, the largest opposition party, said he had already lodged a complaint alleging that pro-junta parties had forced people to cast advance votes in their favor.

The opposition, cowed by years of repression and hampered by exorbitant registration fees and other regulatory hindrances, was able to field candidates in less than half the available constituencies.

The National Democratic Force fielded candidates in just 159 of the 1,157 constituencies.

Burmese authorities barred most international monitors and journalists. A group of diplomats invited by the government to observe the process in the central city of Mandalay was led by the North Korean ambassador.

The elections have been criticized by the United States and the international community.

"The elections were based on a fundamentally flawed process and demonstrated the regime's continued preference for repression and restriction over inclusion and transparency," President Obama told an audience in India.

- Financial Times

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