BANGKOK - As Myanmar prepares for its first elections in 20 years, uncertainty
surrounding the promised democratic transition has crippled the workings of
government and raised tensions inside the armed forces. While many analysts
view the highly anticipated polls as mainly a one-horse race, there is also a
growing sense that the elections may not go exactly as dictator Senior General
Than Shwe plans.
Even though an official polling date has not been announced, election fever has
gripped the country, one of Asia's poorest and most politically repressed. The
state-controlled media are now full of reports, footage and photos of
government ministers in full
campaign mode inaugurating community development projects, meeting with local
leaders and handing out government assistance.
At least a dozen current military appointed ministers have reportedly been
selected by Than Shwe to run for office. They and others will have to resign
their post to contest the elections and most are expected to vacate their seats
by April, when the government's financial reports are due.
Thereafter an interim administration is expected to be established to run the
country for the six months leading up to the elections and for a period
thereafter until the newly elected parliament is up and running. Leading up to
that transition, changes to the government and military are also in the
pipeline, including a cabinet shake-up, streamlining of government
administration and enforced mass retirements of civil servants and soldiers.
Thousands of senior officers will be forced to retire to make way for a new
generation of younger officers, as Than Shwe apparently plans to firmly enforce
the 60-year-old retirement rule in the transition towards democracy. Because
there will inevitably be winners and losers in the process, the planned changes
are already causing ripples among the rank and file.
"Periods of uncertainty like this disturb the army more than anything else,"
said the Chiang Mai-based Burmese academic and military specialist Win Min.
"They are only confident when everything is predictable," he added.
In recent weeks there have been unconfirmed reports of unrest among army ranks,
with soldiers worried about their futures apparently protesting against low pay
and meager rice rations. The reports mentioned in particular mutinies in the
Light Infantry's 66th and 77th divisions. Government officials have dismissed
the media reports as unfounded rumors.
Yet it is clear that there is uneasiness within the army that its now dominant
political, economic and social role in society will be diminished significantly
after the elections. Soldiers in the army's far-flung regional commands must
often fend for themselves in finding food, supplies and other essentials due to
their meager salaries.
There have been growing reports of corrupt officers demanding even more "taxes"
from impoverished farmers in the areas they control. "There is tremendous fear
within the army about the future and increasing anger at their living
conditions, especially out in the far-flung regions," said Win Min. "This is
only likely to increase as the elections draw nearer."
"After the elections, soldiers will be nominally under civilian control," the
Myanmar specialist and Aung San Suu Kyi's biographer Justin Wintle told Asia
Times Online. "This is something that the [Myanmar] army is not used to having
been in control for nearly 50 years and will certainly create unease and
In the promised shift towards a civilian-led administration, regional
commanders will in theory be required to answer to local government authorities
- a potential fundamental shift to the military's autonomous operating
procedures over the past 20 years. There have also been reported tensions
between local authorities and the central government, including over forced
While a select group of military officials will benefit from the redistribution
of power in the democratic transition, the vast majority of Myanmar's 500,000
strong military will likely see their roles diminish. Over the past year,
certain junior officers have been given intensive instruction in politics and
economics as part of senior officer training courses.
The sessions aim to prepare them for possible service as military members of
parliament, according to Myanmar military sources. (According to the 2008
constitution, 25% of the seats in parliament will be reserved for military
officials.) Many of those who have attended the prestigious officers' school,
the National Defense College, are now reportedly preparing to take up positions
in the new parliament. As many as 2,000 soldiers may be assigned to
parliamentary work in the national and provincial assemblies.
Those legally reserved seats, onlookers say, show that the transition to
civilian rule will not result in a clean transfer of power. "Things will remain
the same, there will be no change in political power in Naypyidaw," one senior
Chinese government official told ATol. "There is no chance that any civilian
government after the elections will have real power," said Martin Moreland, a
former British ambassador to Myanmar.
Moreland served in Myanmar, then known as Burma, during the 1988 mass
pro-democracy demonstrations, the military crackdown on those same protesters
and the 1990 elections the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by
pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, overwhelmingly won but the military later
The generals have apparently learned from that experience and are now tightly
controlling the electoral process to ensure a more favorable result. Myanmar
watchers meanwhile doubt that Than Shwe will quietly leave the scene after the
polls, as some people close to the authoritarian leader have previously
"Than Shwe is unlikely to retire. More likely he will copy his predecessor, Ne
Win, and remain the ultimate authority behind the scenes," Moreland added.
Than Shwe, a former psychological warfare operative, is treating the upcoming
elections more like a military battle plan than democratic process. That has
included a high degree of secrecy surrounding the process, including
uncertainty surrounding the actual election date. "Ministers are tight-lipped
about the election and keeping their political work low key," said a senior
government source in the new capital Naypyidaw.
The military is now reportedly quietly selecting its candidates and launching
unpublicized campaigns in their favor. In that direction, Than Shwe recently
moved the usual weekly cabinet meeting back by a day, from Thursday to
Wednesday, to allow ministers to travel in their respective regions for four
consecutive days to hand out development aid and other state funds in a bid to
build their candidacies.
"Clearly the military are now trying to win the hearts and minds of the
people," said an Asian diplomat charged with monitoring Myanmar. While
ministers and other military affiliated candidates go on the hustings, already
severe restrictions and controls have intensified apparently to avoid
independent reports on the military's electoral maneuvers.
For instance, United Nations representatives and international aid workers are
now finding it more difficult to get visas into the country and permission to
travel outside Yangon. The International Labor Organization and several
European non-governmental organizations active in the country have had their
operations only sanctioned through April, according a European diplomat who
monitors Myanmar from Bangkok.
"No decision is being taken that does not relate to the election preparation,"
a senior UN official in Yangon told ATol on condition of anonymity. Government
officials have informed the UN official that several projects they had
scheduled will only be allowed to start after the election.
Censorship and control of the media is also tightening. While the election
itself is frequently mentioned in the tightly censored local news publications,
items about the formation of political parties have been banned by the
government's censorship board, according to editors of privately run
Significantly, Than Shwe has put influential Energy Minister Aung Thaung in
charge of the election campaign and tasked him with providing funds to
pro-junta candidates, according to sources close to Than Shwe. That includes
ensuring that the two main pro-junta organizations - the Union Solidarity and
Development Association (USDA) and the National Unity Party (NUP) - secure the
popular vote. The junta chief has instructed soldiers and government officials
to view the NUP as "a sister to the army", according to a government source.
Junta head start
The main opposition NLD has not yet indicated whether it will field candidates
in the polls. The party has called for the release of all political prisoners,
including NLD leader Suu Kyi, as a conciliatory gesture before the polls are
Other prospective parties and individuals planning to contest the polls have
been hobbled by the lack of official regulations to govern the campaign
process. Until the election laws are made public, political parties can not
register and their candidates are barred from campaigning.
"The electoral laws are now 70-80% complete," Myanmar's Foreign Minister Nyan
Win recently told his Thai counterpart, Kasit Piromya, at a meeting of the
regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc in Hanoi. "So, I
think the elections would be most probably held in the second half of the
year," he reportedly said.
"The political parties and election laws will be revealed at the last minute
even though we understand they have been completed for some time," said Win
Min, the Chiang Mai University-based academic. "They want to keep any potential
opposition wrong footed and not allow them time to organize." In the run-up to
the 1990 polls, the electoral law was made public 20 months before the polls,
giving opposition parties and candidates time to prepare their campaigns.
Some have speculated that the upcoming polls may be on October 10, 2010 - or
10-10-10 - because of the military regime's obsession with numerology. Military
leaders have made key decisions in the past on the basis of what astrologers
have determined as auspicious or significant dates, including the 1990 election
date and recent sudden move of the national capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw.
Following that logic, only 10 political parties will be allowed to run in the
elections according to Prime Minister General Thein Sein, who reportedly tipped
the regime's plans at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit held
last October in Thailand, according to an Indonesian diplomat at the briefing.
There was no mention of Suu Kyi's or the NLD's participation in the polls, the
Myanmar is now a very different country than it was the last time it went to
the polls. Decades of repression, harassment and economic decay have left many
citizens bewildered and angry at the military, though whether this will be
translated into a strong anti-government vote at the polls remains an open
Money will obviously be a factor. Businessmen with close connections to the
regime have been told by the military that they must support pro-government
candidates and provide funds for their campaigns. A source familiar with the
situation said that the junta has already allocated specific electorates to
certain businessmen and demanded their financial backing.
"We cannot afford to lose this election," Thein Sein reportedly told leading
businessmen at a meeting last year. "Otherwise we have wasted the last 20 years
for nothing," he concluded, according to Western diplomats with close
connections to the local business community.
Many Myanmar citizens inside and outside the country believe that the elections
have been specifically designed to convince the international community that
the junta has willingly moved towards participatory democracy while top
generals will in effect retain near absolute power. They note, for instance,
the fact that under the new 2008 constitution one-quarter of the parliament's
seats will be reserved for army officers.
But fixing outright what will be closely watched elections will pose problems
for the junta. Those who stand under the military will finally have to attract
the popular vote - which with the pent up resentment against the regime will be
no mean feat if the election is even remotely free and fair.
"The race is on, but as the weeks roll by the regime is increasingly worried
that they may not be able to control the results," claimed an Asian diplomat
based in Yangon.
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British
Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.