BANGKOK - Myanmar will hold its first elections in 20 years on November 7, with
most people believing that the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party
(USDP) has already sewn up the result.
But there are signs of a possible protest vote, with the country's voters
either snubbing the military rulers' preferred USDP in favor of its lesser
political ally, the National Unity Party (NUP), or through a boycott of polling
Like the 1990 polls, the country's charismatic pro-democracy leader and Nobel
Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, will not be casting her vote. She remains
under house arrest in her lakeside
residence in Yangon, where she has spent 15 of the last 21 years. Her National
League for Democracy (NLD) party, which swept the 1990 elections which were
later annulled by the military, has boycotted the new polls on the grounds the
election laws were unfair.
Recently senior government officials have hinted that she may be released in
the coming weeks when her current term of house arrest detention is due to
expire. To many she remains the best hope for Myanmar's democratic future, and
though she will be effectively silenced at the weekend's polls, she may yet
play an important role in how the results pan out.
Unlike 1990, when her party the NLD surprisingly swept to victory in the polls
and won more than 80% of the seats, the party is not contesting these elections
and the NLD leaders, including Suu Kyi, are calling on electors not to cast
their vote. The junta has countered with a campaign of fear and intimidation.
"Every citizen who values democracy and wants democratic rule must cast their
votes without fail," the state-controlled news media has repeatedly broadcast.
It has also warned voters to choose candidates "correctly". Voters have also
been cautioned that boycotting the polls is illegal and would be punished with
severe prison sentences.
Under the current constitution, adopted two years ago in a referendum that has
been severely criticized as a sham by the international community, 25% of the
seats in the national, provincial and state parliaments must be reserved for
serving soldiers. The president must also have a military background while the
commander-in-chief will reserve the right to dismiss the parliament for reasons
of national security.
Segments of the international community are already crying foul. "This seems to
an exercise aimed at putting a cosmetic veneer on military rule," British
ambassador to Myanmar Andrew Heyn told journalists in Bangkok on Thursday.
"Nothing is free or fair in the way it is being conducted. It is certainly not
inclusive, and the electoral commission overseeing the process is certainly not
Twenty years ago people came out in droves, including soldiers and their wives,
to participate in the election the NLD overwhelmingly won. "At that time NLD
was not really a party," Aung San Suu Kyi told this correspondent in a
telephone interview shortly after her release in July 1995. "It was more of a
movement that represented the peoples' aspirations for a freer, fairer and
democratic government," she said.
Many voters have expressed disappointment that the NLD opted against fielding
candidates - though a splinter group of the NLD is contesting the polls under a
new party banner. "Who can I vote for?" said Hla Hla Htay, a food stall owner
in Yangon. "I don't want to vote for the military, so there is no one for me to
That believed widespread sentiment raises questions about how voters might opt
to lodge a protest vote. "This is the first chance since 1990 for people to
punish the government," a Myanmar academic told Asia Times Online on condition
of anonymity. "There will be a strong ground swell of support for any candidate
who is not USDP," he predicted.
The pro-military NUP, one of the few contesting parties with a national
platform, could benefit from that sentiment - even though they were the
military's preferred party and lost overwhelmingly at the 1990 polls. In many
seats for the national parliament, they are the only party contesting against
the USDP in constituencies.
"I'm too scared to vote for a real opposition candidate," said a former
minister in Ne Win's government before 1988. "They will have video-cameras in
the polling stations monitoring everyone casting their ballot. So I think I
will vote NUP as my best and safest choice," he added.
In the closest approximation of a preliminary opinion poll, fishermen in the
southern coastal areas of Myanmar were forced to vote in advance, and more than
80% of them in Dawi voted for the NUP, according to government sources in the
The NUP may support the current military regime and its new constitution, but
it is not a carbon copy of the junta's USDP. The NUP was born of the Burma
Socialist Program Party created by former military dictator General Ne Win. It
is now largely comprised of non-military members, including former bureaucrats,
businessmen and academics, and professes a commitment to civilian rule.
"We are not allied to the USDP," Khin Maung Gyi, the NUP general secretary told
a press conference in Yangon in September. "We will compete fairly against
them," he said.
In February, the party told visiting United Nations human-rights envoy Tomas
Quintana that they had already chosen some 1,000 candidates and were working on
their campaign strategy, including policies related to education, health and
According to ad hoc opinion polls carried by some news publications and
magazines based in Yangon, a majority of those interviewed agreed these were
the key issues that a new elected government should aim to address.
Sources in Naypyidaw say the top general has ordered the USDP to win more than
85% of the seats in order to eclipse the NLD's margin of victory in 1990.
Although the cards are stacked in the USDP's favor, there is a strong chance it
falls short of that threshold.
"If there is a significant vote for the NUP - and I am not saying I am
predicting that - it would certainly be a slap in the face for the old man -
Than Shwe," ambassador Heyn told Asia Times Online.
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British
Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in