In less than two weeks, Burma will hold its first elections in 20 years. Although the vote allows for civilian and opposition participation, analysts say the elections are unlikely to alter the military's grip on power.
Burma's military government is calling the November 7 parliamentary elections a step on the road to democracy.
Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch cautions that the vote will be a sham. "There is an intention on the part of the military to create certain trappings of civilian rule, but really to entrench military rule - to give it a façade that may be more palatable to the international community, but not to give one iota of control to the civilians who might be placed into positions of formal authority."
Military's tight control
Roth moderated a day-long discussion of developments in Burma at The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
Panelist David Williams of the Center for Constitutional Democracy noted that while civilians may run for office, the military is guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats and has veto power over the remaining 75 percent of candidates. "The electoral commission is individually vetting candidates. So no one will get on the ballot who is unacceptable to the regime."
And after the vote, said Williams, the government will be constitutionally-bound to enforce the military's wishes. "After the elections, I think Burma will be a military dictatorship just as much as now. The military will have the power, constitutionally, to do anything it wants to do without interference from the civilian government. But if it ever gets tired of having a civilian government, it can declare a state of emergency and send everyone else home."
Opposition representation on local level
No one at the conference doubted that Burma's military will continue to exert ultimate power after the vote. David Steinberg of Georgetown University said, however, that allowing civilian and opposition representation, however tenuous or subordinate to the armed forces, is a major departure from decades of military rule.
"It is the first election in 50 years when you will have opposition people sitting in the local parliament," said Steinberg. "That is really important. They will be a minority. They will be subject to all kinds of restrictions, no doubt."
Steinberg also gave his thoughts on how the international community should deal with Burma and how it might most effectively press for change. He said that merely criticizing the country's human-rights record and its treatment of dissidents - like Aung San Suu Kyi - has not proven effective, and that a more productive course might be to point out how the military's behavior undermines the goals of national unity that the armed forces says it is defending.
Calls to target military government's finances
Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen also questioned the effectiveness of international leaders and diplomats delivering long lists of human-rights grievances to Burmese officials. "It is not enough for weak-voiced U.N. emissaries to assure us that the Burmese government has promised to lift the harshness of their regime and it is not adequate for Asean leaders to announce cheerfully that they gave the Burmese leader, quote, 'an earful' [of complaints]. The military butchers are happy to have their ears full, so long as their hands remain free."
According to Sen, sanctions against Burma should target the economic interests of its rulers and spare the Burmese people from hardship.
The situation in Burma likely will be discussed during U.S. President Barack Obama's trip to Asia next month, which will include stops in India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.