Pro-military junta political parties in Burma are claiming a victory at the ballot box while the U.S. is criticizing the rulers for missing an opportunity to begin moving toward the more democratic government the Asian nation’s people have been seeking.
The pro-government Union Solidarity and Development Party is set to claim about 80 percent of the seats in the new parliament, and a report by the Daily Telegraph of London says party leaders are understandably pleased with the results.
But the election outcome has plenty of critics, including leading dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who has rejected the government’s offer of conditional release from house arrest when her sentence expires this week.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is reporting that through her attorney, Nyan Win, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is asking her supporters to investigate all reports of voter fraud and will accept nothing less than a complete, unconditional release.
Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service professor David Steinberg has doubts but says the elections should produce results, no matter how small.
“They have to form a new government within 90 days, but of course the military, which has maintained power since 1962, will remain in power through direct rule or civilianized rule,” Steinberg observed.
“So you’ll see a president, two vice presidents, and a central legislature and 14 provincial legislatures beginning operation sometime before March,” Steinberg said.
Listen to an interview with Steinberg:
But Dictator Watch president and founder Roland Watson says the veneer of a change shouldn’t fool anyone, because the elections simply confirm Than Shwe’s hold on power.
“This election will have no positive impact on the democratic aspirations of the
Burmese people at all,” Watson asserted.
“Than Shwe, and we know this from a variety of sources, is the dictator of Burma and he has no intention of giving up power,” Watson stated.
“It had been announced he was going to retire, but he did not retire. There’s been a lot of speculation about what role he’s going to take in his power structure,” Watson explained. “The names may change, but he will continue to be the number one guy,” he said.
Listen to an interview with Watson:
The United States has joined a chorus of voices criticizing the elections. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement saying the U. S. was hoping for better results.
“The United States is deeply disappointed by today’s elections in Burma. The generals who have ruled the country for the past 22 years missed an opportunity to begin genuine transition toward democratic governance and national reconciliation,” Clinton said.
“The electoral process was severely flawed, precluded an inclusive, level playing field, and repressed fundamental freedoms. As a result, the elections were neither free nor fair,” Clinton’s statement continued.
Clinton added that banning outside observers was a problem.
“We were concerned by the regime’s refusal to allow international journalists and election observers to monitor or cover the voting. Reports of intentional Internet slowdowns, voter intimidation, and fraudulent ‘advance voting’ schemes were also very troubling,” she said.
Political observers had forecast that the elections would be a smokescreen to hide the real intentions of military ruler Than Shwe.
WND reported earlier that Amnesty International’s Southeast Asian office believed that the elections would take place so the regime could attempt to legitimize its power.
Not all of the pundits were skeptical. BurmaNet News reported in July that the Burma-focused think tank Myanmar Egress believed the elections would open the door for democracy and bring more than 77 million voters to the polls.
Steinberg added that not all of the optimism is wishful thinking.
“It is something that has the potential for some modest importance. When you look back and say that this is the first election in 20 years, but this is the first election where there will be some opposition voices since 1960,” he observed.
“There will be a small percentage of opposition, 10 or 15 percent or something of that nature. The question is then, not just whether there is opposition, but whether these opposition voices, number one, can have free debate inside these legislatures, and two, whether that debate will be able to be reported in the media,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg points out that the media has been censored since 1962, but the existence of opposition is a hopeful sign.
“We see the beginnings of a little bit of pluralism in the society and the political process, but how far that will go in public is the question,” Steinberg said.
“My informants tell me that now there are discussions on politics that the people were afraid to do before. But they’re beginning to do it now, and that is in essence a somewhat positive sign,” Steinberg reported.
Reports from Burma say that Union Solidarity and Development Party leader and Prime Minister Thein Sein won a seat in the parliament. The USDP is thought to be a proxy for the military government.
Watson believes this is evidence that Than Shwe is not out of the picture.
“At the end of the day you’re going to have Than Shwe back there and he’s going to be heading the military council and he’s going to be heading the Burma Army, and he’s going to have all of the power to purge people from the dictatorship,” Watson asserted.
“I’m referring to people from groups like the National Democratic Force. I think they had a handful of people that were supposedly elected,” he added.
“There is nothing to stop Than Shwe from throwing all of them in prison at any time. They have no protection because they were elected to parliament,” Watson said.
Watson doubts that having opposition parliamentarians will open up the debate.
“People are saying that, ‘That fact that there are other people in there too, that’s going to allow people to talk about things and that will open up democratic space,'” he claimed.
“What people are ignoring is that they could all be arrested tomorrow. Or, if they get into their respective buildings and start talking about an issue, and if that rubs Than Shwe the wrong way, the next thing you know is that they’re in prison,” Watson observed.
“This is what happened with the 1990 election. Many members of parliament from the legitimate 1990 election are still in prison,” he said.
Watson said that while it’s clear Than Shwe will not give up power, it’s hard to say what his primary role will be in the next couple of weeks or months.
“Will this election have any long-term positive benefit for democracy in Burma? I don’t think so at all,” Watson said.
Steinberg adds that a major issue that has never been resolved is the minorities, some of which have their own armies and control parts of Burmese territory.
“The minority issue is the most important issue facing Burma since independence. It has never been resolved, and I think this constitution will not resolve the minority issue,” Steinberg observed.
“These involve 17 cease-fires with minority groups, and there is a border security force that is supposed to make it difficult for there to be an insurrection. There is also a feeling that violence will break out in the Kachin state in the north,” Steinberg said.
Violence broke out after Sunday’s vote, and about 20,000 refugees
fled Burma in the wake of the fighting.
Steinberg believes that Burma’s neighbors, such as China, likely will establish trade relations with the Burmese government, but Watson says that’s a mistake. He believes that establishing trade relationships with the regime gives legitimacy to a government he says doesn’t deserve it.