Suu Kyi junta’s stunning PR toy

On November 7, the Burmese people voted for the first time after more than two decades, both for the People’s Parliament and the Nationalities Parliament. While the much-touted elections and the run up to it were critical, the actual event was marred by rigging and intimidation. Voter turnout in a country that has not seen an election in two decades was low, revealing that people had very little hope of things changing. The last elections held in Burma were in 1990 when the National League for

Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory. The ruling military junta, however, did not transfer power to the NLD and kept Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest for almost 14 years.
The two parties that were the forerunners in the 1990 election — the NLD and the Shan National League for Democracy — were both dissolved prior to the November 7 elections. Both chose to remain outside the rhetoric created by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which is the official name of the junta. Thirty-seven political parties participated in the elections, though the NLD was probably most qualified in terms of political acumen and leadership.
One deterrent for several smaller parties participating in the elections was the high cost of registering candidates. The alliance of six small pro-democracy parties, called the National Democratic Force, was also ineffective because it was loose-knit and did not define itself coherently in terms of its mandate. Another factor was that it lacked able leadership.
Two of the most significant parties participating in the elections were the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which had its origins in the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a closely knit association of the ruling military officials. The USDA changed its name to USDP in order to provide a greater legitimacy for its participation in the elections.
The other was the National Unity Party (NUP). The NUP evolved from the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) which became a platform for the military junta in the Sixties and Seventies. As early as the Sixties, the BSPP was crafted by General Ne Win to lend credibility to the military rule. The BSPP renamed as NUP contested the elections in 1990. However, there is a view that over the years this group has moderated its stance and was contesting elections on the grounds that a political transition was crucial for Burma.
Given that both USDP and NUP had a stronghold in the elections as compared to the other registered parties, their ability to influence the outcome would have been better. In this background it will be no surprise if the USDP emerges as the forerunner. It is even being speculated that they will win a majority of the 330 seats in the People’s Parliament and the 168 seats in the Nationalities Parliament. Even as the results are awaited, the response of the international community to the elections has been one of disappointment, mainly on account of the fact that the rhetoric of the elections did not meet the promise of expectations.
What remains a puzzle to most Burma observers is that within a week of the elections the junta has released Ms Suu Kyi. While she was the most high-profile political prisoner, there are still about 2,200 political prisoners awaiting release. Moreover, with Ms Suu Kyi’s promise that she will continue the democracy struggle, one wonders how long she will remain free. If her release had occurred before the elections, it would have encouraged the NLD to actually contest the elections. This release seems to be more of a negotiating exercise to quell the international opinion that has emerged in the aftermath of the elections — that there is little hope of change within the ruling junta to allow for a free and fair electoral process to shape the political developments within Burma.
In the speech following her release, Ms Suu Kyi urged the Burmese people to continue the struggle for freedom and the fight for their rights. She also hinted that she would urge the Western countries to end the sanctions against Burma and search for new options to bring about international pressure upon the junta to change its stance within the country.
For the international community Burma will continue to pose a challenge. With deeper entrenchment of the junta, little change is to be expected and this means that the measures to engage the junta through diplomatic channels of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and other nations that remain cooperative to the junta will make no headway. The idea of six-party talks for Burma, along the lines of the North Korea talks, has not even made its beginning.
Given that there is a role for both the international community and the United Nations in Burma, perhaps this would be the time to look for a new initiative along the lines of the United Nations-mandated transitions in Cambodia and East Timor. The UN could administer the nation during a transition phase in which political parties could be engaged in a process of national reconciliation. The UN could also allow for the role of the six parties at the international level to assist the process of change. Given that there has been a military government in place since 1962, this would allow the UN to dismantle the administrative structures that the junta has created and controls. This would ensure greater and wider participation, a necessity in the run up to a free and fair election.
The UN role would also allow for the representation of ethnic groups that make up the mosaic of Burma. These groups have not found adequate representation and the elections left several areas out of consideration because of the volatility of the situation. A more concerted effort towards national reconciliation and participation would include these groups too.
The junta may feel complacent with the outcome of the current election, but the leadership in Burma needs to realise that it is a matter of time before its presence is challenged.

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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