Bangkok (Mizzima) – Preparations for Burma’s first elections in 20 years are about to get underway in earnest now that Buddhist New Year festivities are over. At least 20 parties who plan to contest the forthcoming polls have already registered, even though the polling date remains a secret. More are expected to file with the Election Commission in the next few weeks.
The junta is keen to make the electoral process internationally credible, after the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) decided to boycott the polls because they fear they will neither be free nor fair. So top military man and junta leader, Senior General Than Shwe, plans a mass amnesty of political prisoners, including some high-profile activists, according to a senior military source.
But the bomb blasts during the Thingyan (New Year) celebrations, which left 10 dead and 170 injured may have put a spanner in the works – at least temporarily. Plans to announce the formation of a military caretaker government and the release of hundreds of activists may now be on hold.
“Security issues are a constant pre-occupation of the top generals,” Burmese political scientist Win Min, a visiting lecturer at Chiang Mai University, said. “So nothing is likely to be done until they are sure that this was an isolated incident – and not the start of a concerted campaign.”
General Than Shwe is increasingly paranoid, and since the monks’ uprising in 2007 never sleeps in the same residence two nights running, according to sources close to his family. In 2002, during the alleged plot to overthrow the government by the family of Ne Win, the top three generals at the time – Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt – all slept for more than a week in the War Office because they feared they were the target of a foreign assassin, a mercenary hired by Ne Win’s son-in-law, a Burmese intelligence officer told Mizzima at the time.
“While the bomb blasts reveal simmering tensions, they are extremely unlikely to alter the regime’s resolve to push ahead with the elections,” Richard Horsey, Burma analyst, former International Labour Organisation representative in Rangoon and author of several recent reports on the forthcoming elections, told Mizzima.
But many diplomats and anlaysts also believe that until those behind the bombs are revealed it is difficult to determine what impact if any the blasts will have on the elections.
Dr. Maung Zarni, a Burmese academic and senior visiting fellow at Chulalongkorn University Institute of Security and International Studies, said: “Than Shwe himself maybe looking for an excuse to put it off – so that the election postponement could allow him the freedom to go after the KIO and the UWSA if they continue to resist the government’s demand to disarm and join the newly formed Border Guard Force,” he said, referring to the Kachin Independence Organisation and the United Wa State Army.
“The bomb a few days later in Kachin State would seem to give this view greater credibility,” he told Mizzima.
Nevertheless preparations for the polls are underway again, with new political parties seeking registration. Most of them are new organisations, with only three of the 10 registered parties that fought elections in 1990, which the NLD won convincingly, prepared to stand candidates again this time round.
But many in Burma’s commercial centre Rangoon remain sceptical and unmoved by the whole process. “Why should we care, nothing will change,” an elderly taxi driver said.
“Burma is unique,” 28-year-old teacher Maung Maung Thein said. “We’ll have a president, but a president with no power,” he laughed.
The bomb blasts may have interrupted the junta’s schedule though. There maybe a delay in naming the interim administration, which had been slatted to be in place early next month to run the country until the polls and then make sure there is a smooth hand-over to the newly elected civilian government.
There will only be 17 ministers in the new “caretaker military government”, according to Burmese military sources. Some existing ministers may stay in place, but most of them will retire or enter politics. The current prime minister, Lieutenant General Thein Sein, who is expected to retire, recently told several close confidants that he had to move out of his government residence in the capital Naypyidaw immediately after Thingyan. Other ministers, including the powerful industries minister, Aung Thaung have already moved into palatial homes around the capital, or are in the process of having them built.
At least a dozen ministers, including Information Minister Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, Interior Minister Major General Maung Oo and Agriculture and Irrigation Minister Major General Htay Oo, will resign to take up political careers. The fifth-top general and head of military intelligence, Lieutenant General Myint Swe, is believed to be destined to become the new prime minister in the interim administration, though Than Shwe may reconsider this as he was put in charge of the investigations into the previous explosions in May 2005, which killed more than 20 people and more than 200 others injured, and never found the culprits.
“Many major generals and colonels have been brought to the capital for training in the past month,” Win Min told Mizzima. “Some of these will take over the ministries in the interim cabinet and others will become politicians.”
Twenty-five per cent of the seats in the new bicameral parliament are reserved for serving soldiers, so some 200 officers will become national parliamentarians. There are also 14 regional parliaments, all with military men turned politicians. More than 1,000 soldiers are enrolled in a school being run by military chief General Thura Shwe Man. “They are being taught about parliamentary procedures and civilian matters in readiness for their new role as politicians,” Win Min said.
Most of these people are unhappy at being seconded from the army, a western researcher who has interviewed several retired officers told Mizzima, declining declined to be identified in case the authorities stopped his work. After five years – the duration of the parliamentary term – these soldiers would expect to return to the ranks, but fear that they will have missed out on several promotions as a result.
In the national parliament, these military representatives will be colonels or above – all of them graduates of prestigious officers’ schools. “I did not do my officer training to enter politics,” said one colonel confidentially. “I studied so I could become a general some day.”
The parties who have already submitted the necessary registration papers to the newly appointed Election Commission are waiting for their approval before openly preparing for the elections or campaigning. But they are already working behind the scenes to get ready for the elections.
One of the United Democratic Party leaders, U Thu Wai, said his party already has selected more than 100 people to contest the constituencies once the candidate registration is open. The National Union Party (NUP), which ran in the previous elections and won only 10 seats, but secured more than 20% of the vote, has also already chosen their candidates for this election. The NUP leaders told UN special human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana on his visit in February that they had selected all their candidates and were already planning election strategy.
The main pro-junta party is yet to be formed, though it is well known that the mass pro-government community organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Organisation (USDA), created by junta chief Than Shwe more than 15 years ago will be the military’s main vehicle in the elecions. Its leader, the agriculture minister who is a close confidant of the senior general, has repeatedly told visiting diplomats that he would soon be a politician. In fact he is being tipped by many to become the next prime minister in the post-poll “civilianized” government.
The USDA’s logo is a lion, and many observers believe that the future potential party is trying to use this emblem as its political symbol, and avoid trying to invent a name for as long a possible.
Of course the party that convincingly won the 1990 elections but was never allowed to form a government – the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the charismatic pro-democracy icon and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – has refused to register because it would mean ditching their founder and leader.
Under the parties registration law anyone who is serving a prison sentence cannot be a member of a political party, which would mean expelling Ms Suu Kyi, who is serving a prison sentence under house arrest. She has spent more than 14 of the past 21 years in detention. She was also prevented from contesting the 1990 elections because she was under house arrest.
For many activists and the international community this effectively makes sure the election process is neither credible nor inclusive. This is in fact what Than Shwe wanted all along, according to observers.
“The main aim of the junta’s election laws is clearly to emasculate the NLD and prevent their leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from taking any part in the forthcoming electoral process,” British Burma expert and biographer of the pro-democracy icon, Justin Wintle, said.
This is a view most western countries endorse. “We certainly are very concerned about the election laws and the situation facing the NLD,” Scot Marciel, the US ambassador for Asean told Mizzima recently. “The laws put the opposition in a very difficult position.”
Undaunted, Than Shwe hopes to maintain the advantage by releasing hundreds of political prisoners next month. A list of those to be granted an amnesty has been drawn, according to sources in Naypyidaw, and has already been submitted to the senior general to vet and approve.
It includes many political prisoners from different groups. While some NLD activists are amongst them, the vast majority are ethnic rebels, members of the 88 Generation group and former military intelligence officers from the time of the ousted prime minister and spy boss, Khin Nyunt.
There will also a collection of social activists – many of them arrested and sentenced for their work during the aftermath of the devastating cyclone, Nargis. The renowned comedian Zarganar is almost certain to be among them. Some so-called internet criminals and journalists may also be included. What is also certain is that there will also be leading ethnic leaders and activists freed, but not Shan leader Khun Htun Oo.
Some Rohingya are also on the list, said a military source, as Than Shwe wants to boost the pro-junta’s electoral chances in places such as Northern Rakhine State. These are most likely to include the unfortunate men and women who have been locked up for marrying without permission.
Than Shwe hopes that some of these prisoners, especially the 88 Generation student leaders and Zarganar, will decide to take part in the elections. But in the light of the NLD’s recent decision, it is by no means certain that they will choose this option. Than Shwe though, at the very least, hopes to show he is trying to make the process inclusive and credible and that it is the NLD that is hell-bent on disrupting the polls.
But as a Burmese writer and political analyst told Mizzima recently, the Burmese people are not that gullible. “The people will punish the government,” he said on condition of anonymity, as his comments would certainly land him in jail. “The payback will certainly come at the elections.