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Activists Hold Little Hope for 2010 Elections in Burma

  • Laurel Bowman

Pro-democracy Burmese protesters in India

Pro-democracy Burmese protesters in India

Burma is now preparing for elections at the state, regional and national level. But the country's much-criticized election laws prompted the main opposition party to opt out, leaving many activists disheartened and disgruntled.

This is how Burmese, pro-democracy advocates living in India reacted to new election rules in Burma. The rules essentially bar Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders from running.

"Because General Than Shwe led by military government they are cheating the people," said one protester.

Burma's ruling military junta says it will hold free and fair elections this year for the first time in two decades. Priscilla Clapp, the former mission chief at the U.S. Embassy in Burma, says that while elections are a step in the right direction, Burma's constitution finalized in 2008 ensures strong control by the military.

"Many senior military leaders have resigned and they are already out campaigning," said Priscilla Clapp.

Burma's constitution bars political prisoners from running for office. The iconic Aung San Suu Kyi heads the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy or NLD, but she has been under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years. Her party has opted out.

"How can the NLD in good conscience register themselves as a political party and participate in these elections when all of their leaders who have suffered so heavily for their engagement would be precluded from engaging with this new government," said Jared Genser.

Washington attorney Jared Genser is Aung San Suu Kyi's international counsel. He has a lot to say about the junta's upcoming elections, none of it good.

"I think they learned their lesson from 1990 when they actually allowed for a free and fair election and lost in a landslide and they are not going to allow that sort of thing to happen again," he said.

Genser is the president of Freedom Now, a group in Washington that works for the release of political prisoners worldwide. He recently helped to secure freedom for Burmese-born American Kyaw Zaw Lwin, also known as Nyi Nyi Aung. The pro-democracy activist was arrested in September in Rangoon where he traveled to visit his sick mother.

"I am seeing people dying in front of me without any water or any treatments," said Nyi Nyi Aung.

Nyi Nyi Aung says most Burmese feel the junta's elections are a sham, reminiscent of the elections in 1990, when the military refused to relinquish power despite losses at the polls. He says democracy's best hope is constant, steady pressure from the international community.

"In my case when the U.S. government requests to the regime for my release and right now I am sitting in front of Congress and I am in the United States and I am free," he said.

Nyi Nyi Aung and other Burmese pro-democracy advocates say the United States has less leverage on Burma, following years of economic sanctions. Last year, the Obama administration announced a new policy toward Burma of pragmatic engagement. Analysts say the junta still responds to international criticism, but that China, India and Burma's other allies within the Association of South East Asian Nations should be at the table for any dialogue on national reconciliation.

Japan and Malaysia recently urged Burma to hold free, fair and inclusive general elections. And Ambassador Clapp thinks even a flawed election holds promise.

"They are going to have to start somewhere," said Priscilla Clapp. "They will have to allow some degree of debate. Right now they allow absolutely none."

Hope still for democracy in what was once one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest nations, but now among the poorest.