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Electoral preparations dominating junta actions

Originally appeared in Mizzima News

February 1, 2010

By Larry Jagan

Although there is as yet no election date set, campaigning by supporters of the junta is in full swing. “The New Light of Myanmar is full of reports and photographs of government ministers inaugurating community and development projects, shaking hands with local leaders and handing out financial assistance,” a western diplomat just back from Burma told Mizzima. “Its electioneering by any other name, clearly the military is now trying to win the hearts and minds of the people.”

“Democracy in Burma today is at a fledgling stage and still requires patient care and attention,” Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe told the country last year in his annual speech to mark Armed Forces Day. Since then he has said little on the subject, though in January he warned potential political parties and politicians not to be foolish and to follow the rules.

“Plans are under way to hold elections in a systematic way this year. In that regard, the entire people have to make correct choices,” he cautioned.

But the elections are already dominating everything in Burma, even without the unveiling of the election or political parties laws. All over Burma preparations are quietly being made for the nation’s first elections in twenty years, government administration has been put into suspended animation while government ministers and civil servants have in effect started political campaigning.

“No decision is being taken that does not relate to the election preparation,” a senior UN official in Rangoon told Mizzima on condition of anonymity. Some crucial new projects can only start after the election, government ministers also told another UN aid official.

Meanwhile, weekly cabinet meetings in the capital Naypyitaw have been brought back to Wednesday, to allow ministers to use the four days between Thursday and Sunday to do politics in the areas that they are responsible for in the forthcoming elections, according to senior military sources. This not only involves handing out largesse to targeted communities, he said, but also collecting finances for the actual election campaign when it is finally announced.

General Than Shwe has put the powerful minister Aung Thaung in charge of the election campaign and providing funds for pro-junta candidates, according to sources close to the senior general. “He’s become the old man’s bag man,” a senior manager in one of the company’s of the businessman Tayza told Mizzima. His secret mission is to get the support of the Rohingyas for pro-junta candidates, and make sure the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) party and the National Unity Party (NUP) secure the popular vote, said a government official.

In the last elections, held 27 May 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won convincingly, but Burma’s military rulers never allowed them to form a civilian government. This time the generals are not planning to make the same mistake, and are tightly controlling everything to ensure they do not lose. In the meantime, they are deliberately keeping everyone in the dark.

“The electoral and political parties laws are now 97 percent complete,” Burma’s foreign minister Nyan Win recently told his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, at a meeting of the regional bloc, ASEAN, in Hanoi. “It will take another two or three months to make it 100 percent. So, I think the elections will most probably be in the second half of the year,” he reportedly said.

Beijing, Burma’s closest ally, also believes it will be sometime in the last three months of this year, according to Chinese diplomats.

It will be on the 10th of the 10th month 2010, senior military sources in the new Burmese capital told Mizzima late last year. And only 10 political parties will be allowed to run, the prime minister, Thein Sein, told his Asian counterparts at the ASEAN Summit in Hua Hin last October, according to an Indonesian diplomat at the briefing. But there was no mention of Aung San Suu Kyi or the National League for Democracy, he added.

People are increasingly tipping the 10/10/2010 as the date because of the junta’s fixation on numerology. In the past, the country’s military made many key decisions on the basis of what astrologers had decreed as auspicious dates, including the 1990 election date and the mass move to the new capital. Nonetheless, while the election is certain now to be held in October or November – after this year’s rainy season – the current favorite date may just be a hoax. What is true is that the elections will be held on a Sunday, the peoples’ normal rest-day.

Until the election laws are made public there is little potential political players can do but bide their time. Until then nobody knows how the election will be conducted, and more importantly who will be competing. Officially there are no political parties registered to stand candidates in the election – this can only happen after the political parties law is passed and an electoral commission established to oversee the campaign and the polls.

“The political parties and election laws will be unveiled at the last minute,” Win Min, a Burmese academic based at Chiang Mai University in Thailand told Mizzima. “They want to keep any potential opposition wrong-footed and not allow them time to organize.”

The last time elections were held the electoral law was made public 20 months before the elections and junta leaders are anxious to avoid making that mistake again. But 20 years on Burma is a very different country than it was then. Repression, harassment and economic decay have left many Burmese bewildered and angrier than every at the military, though whether this will be translated into a strong anti-government vote at the polls remains an open question.

Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists are split on whether or not to run in the elections.

“Why should we contest these elections – the military will tightly control everything,” a spokesman for the exiled Burmese Zin Linn told Miizzima. “How can there be free and fair elections when many of our leaders are in prison for their political activities. The constitution was forced on us, written by them, and then everyone was coerced to vote for it in a sham referendum [in May 2008].”

Many believe that the elections are in fact only a means for the military to pretend that they have moved to democratic civilian rule. Under the constitution, a quarter of the seats are reserved for army officers. Over the past year or so junior officers have been given intensive instruction in political and economic matters as part of their senior officer training courses to prepare them for possible service as military MPs, according to Burmese military sources. Many who attended the prestigious officers school, the National Defense College, are now earmarked to take up positions in a new parliament.

“In 2010, it will only be an election of the dictators – as they take off their uniforms and pretend to be civilians,” said Soe Aung, a leading Burmese pro-democracy activist based in Thailand. Many government officials in Burma have confided privately that the process will certainly be a selection, not an election.

While there may be elections this year, there will be no transfer of power, whether Aung San Suu Kyi or her party runs, according to Chinese diplomats who follow Burma closely. “Things will remain the same, there will be no change in political power,” a senior Chinese government official told Mizzima.

Even though the parties have not yet been formed, nor officially have candidates been chosen to run for office in 2010, the military government is preparing the ground for the campaign and the election. Businessmen with close connections to the regime have already been told they must support the pro-government candidates and provide funds for their campaign. So detailed are the initial plans that the junta has allocated specific electorates to certain businessmen and demanded their financial backing.

“We cannot afford to lose this election,” Burma’s prime minister, General Thein Sein, told some of the leading businessmen last year. “Otherwise we have wasted the last twenty years for nothing,” he concluded, according to western diplomats with close connections to the Burmese business community.

But fixing the elections to get the desired result still poses major problems for the military leaders. Those who stand will have to attract the popular vote – which in Burma now will be no mean feat if the election is at all free and fair. At least a dozen of the current ministers have been selected by the Senior General to run for office. These people will have to resign from the present government to contest the elections.

The ministers have until April, the end of the current financial year, to put their ministries in order. They have been instructed to make sure their books are balanced, creating a race to privatize much of the government’s existing assets. More than 11,000 blocks of land and buildings, owned by various government ministries, are up for sale in Rangoon, according to a western businessman with strong links to many of the top Burmese leaders.

At that point an interim government, with only executive not legislative powers, will be formed to run the country for the six months up until the elections and then for around another six months afterwards before the newly elected parliament meets. “It will take the regime several weeks or months to tally the votes across the nation and finalize the results,” said a Burmese academic based inside the country. And if that is not enough, the new parliament building will not be finished for at least another year, a Burmese construction manager working on the project, Pe Tun, told Mizzima.

In the next few months there will be a major shake-up in the military and the government. The government administration is to be streamlined and many civil servants will also be retired. The number of ministries will be halved, with only 17 ministers left in charge. Already two ministers who are destined to become politicians have resigned and their portfolios merged with other ministries. The rest will resign and become politicians after Buddhist New Year celebrations [Thingyan] in mid-April. All of them will also have to declare their assets before registering as candidates, according to government sources in Burma.

In the next few months, after the political parties law is revealed, the mass community organization USDA – set up by Than Shwe more than fifteen years ago to support the military government at the grassroots – is expected to announce the formation of a political party that will contest this year’s elections.

While some time ago the plan may have been to field three political parties, it now seems that only one party under the control of the USDA will be created, state reliable Burmese sources. Current ministers who have been forced into the political arena will join the party, according to military sources. The NUP though is seen as part of the new era. The top general has instructed soldiers and government officials to see the NUP as “a sister to the army”, said a close confidant of the top generals.

In the coming months there will be massive changes in the army as well as government. A major overhaul of the military is expected with hundreds, if not thousands, of senior officers retiring to make way for the new generation of younger officers, as Than Shwe intends to rigidly enforce the retirement rule of 60 years of age. This is largely in preparation for new relationships that will emerge after the elections.

Regional commanders will in theory will to answer to local civilian authorities, something that runs counter to the military practice of the last 20 years. Already there are tensions in some areas between local authorities and the central government, especially related to forced-labor issues and the mandate of the International Labor Organization.

Local courts have overruled executive orders to return confiscated land, and farmers who have returned are being prosecuted for trespassing – as many as 60 in one area are facing stiff prison sentences for attempting to reclaim land unlawfully seized in the first place. This may just be a forerunner of things to come.

This year’s election process is likely to be fraught and tensions will rise. “Already people are suffering from increased nervousness and anxiety, especially in Rangoon, because of the uncertainty surrounding the coming elections, according to Burmese doctors.

The outcome of the elections is far from certain, according to some Asian diplomats. “The race is certainly on but as the weeks roll by, the regime is increasingly worried that they may not be able to control the results,” said an Asian diplomat based in Rangoon.

Restrictions and controls are also likely to increase as the election draws nearer. Already UN representatives and international aid workers are finding it increasing difficult to get visas to the country and permission to travel outside Rangoon. Multi-entry visas seem to be a thing of the past, said one NGO staff-member.

Censorship and control of the media is also tightening. While the election itself can be mentioned in the country’s publications, anything about the formation of parties is spiked, according to several editors of independent publications.

The election is going to be a real test for the regime. But the key will be how the Burmese population regards the election process. “While this regime has ruled largely through fear, don’t discount an Iran-style reaction if the result appears to have been overly-manipulated by the military,” a young budding Burmese politician who intends to stand in the elections told Mizzima, but declined to be identified for fear of being detained.

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