Can a Violent Military Regime Become a Democracy ... This Year?

It’s been 20 years since an election has been held in Burma. In the last election, in 1990, the lifelong pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi defeated the military government’s candidate in a landslide, winning nearly 90 percent of the vote. The stunned military junta nonetheless refused to relinquish power, crushed subsequent uprisings with force, and has never recognized the election.

The junta has remained in power ever since, ruling over an undemocratic nation with state-induced poverty, arbitrary laws, threats of violence, and no free press. This is the Burma that Samy grew up in, where citizens live in simmering, perpetual fear. He was forced into the life of a refugee as a direct result of the military’s unchecked power, as was his entire family. And there are millions just like him.

Which is why democratic elections here would be a monumental event. And it’s why the world’s eyes are tentatively on the nation technically known as Myanmar: The military junta has promised free elections will be held for the first time since 1990 this year.

So, while I’m sifting through the emails I’ve received in response to my effort to crowdsource refugee resettlement (keep the suggestions and coming, by the way), let’s look at how a military regime claims it’s going to begin the transition to a democratic government this year.

How a Military Regime Claims It Will Transition to Democracy
The military junta that is currently controlling the nation has designed the entire election process -- yes, the same folks who have been oppressing their constituents for decades. The military set up an Election Commission lead by one of its generals -- instead of a citizen -- to oversee the process. Parties are allowed to register with the commission, as long as they meet the laundry list of requirements put forth by the regime. Officials in this commission cannot be sued or legally held responsible for any wrongdoing at the polls or during the eventual vote tally. The date for the elections has yet to be announced.

Furthermore, the ruling junta refuses to let international monitors into the country to observe the process. And it has implemented seemingly arbitrary guidelines for campaigning and canvassing, creating an environment of confusion and making the parties reluctant to demonstrate—lest they break one of the ill-defined rules. And perhaps most notably, the junta has banned any political prisoners—largely pro-democracy activists—from entering any race.

This means that the icon for democracy in Burma, and would-be clear front-runner for lead office, Aung San Suu Kyi, is out of the running. The other best-known organizers, demonstrators and leaders from the pro-democracy movement of the past are also, ironically, for the most part barred from participating in these ostensibly democratic elections. The military junta’s candidates, of course, are still in the running. This has lead Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, to boycott the election until the political prisoners have been released and allowed to run. Despite all that, dozens of parties have registered to run, including an offshoot of the NLD and representatives of the many highly oppressed ethnic minorities. There’s a great, comprehensive rundown of the confounding process and its myriad rules and stipulations at Mizzima’s Election 2010 page.

Okay, so the "democratic" elections are shaping up to be anything but—yet some still say there’s reason to be hopeful, that these elections are “better than nothing," and are a step in the right direction. Among this camp are international diplomats to Burma like U.S. Senator Jim Webb and a number of U.N. representatives—and many Burmese, who are extremely skeptical but quietly hopeful that the elections will at least amount to progress.

This is how I would describe Samy. He has next to no confidence that the elections will be fair, but he continues to be hopeful that they’ll at least bring change in some small, incremental way. After all, truly free elections, and the retirement of the military junta, would mean he could return to his homeland. In an ideal world. In reality, it’s entirely uncertain what—if anything—will actually be different after the elections.

“I hope for change, but the army controls the election,” he told me. He says that other Burmese and many refugees are hopeful, but like him, they don’t get they don’t believe much will be accomplished by these elections. “Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be part of it, the political prisoners are not free. It’s not good.”

Even less inclined to give the junta the benefit of the doubt are the independent media watchdogs the Democratic Voice of Burma. The organization penned a scathing editorial entitled Stop This "Better than Nothing" Talk, which attacks the support of those like Senator Webb’s as naive and misguided, and downright dangerous:

“Proponents of this approach are in essence accepting the fate of elections; they are conceding to the fact that they will not be free and fair and that this is somehow acceptable ... Without a genuine democratic transition, any election, regardless of how it is sold abroad, will be meaningless, and it will be "business as usual" in Burma ... If this election can not offer the people of Burma a better future then it must be exposed for what it is: a cruel charade.


But you certainly can’t blame the Burmese—who have longed for democracy for decades, and have seen their efforts crushed under violence and oppression time and again—for holding out a flicker of hope.

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