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Burma's Elections Dominated by Military-Backed Political Parties

Public expression, through protests and art, has blossomed in the year since Egypt's uprising. On these walls, martyrs of the revolution portrayed as angels are shown. (VOA Photo - E. Arrott)
Public expression, through protests and art, has blossomed in the year since Egypt's uprising. On these walls, martyrs of the revolution portrayed as angels are shown. (VOA Photo - E. Arrott)

Burma's elections Sunday, the first in two decades, will be dominated by parties that favor military rule. The main opposition party is boycotting the polls, because of unfair rules, but a splinter party and smaller opposition parties are contesting and still hold out hope for change.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party is fielding the most candidates in Burma's elections and is led by Prime Minister Thein Sein. He stepped down from his military post, along with more than 30 other officers, to run the USDP.

The second largest is the National Unity Party, a descendant of a party led by former military strongman Ne Win. He deposed Burma's democratically elected leaders in 1962, beginning five decades of military rule.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, says the elections, part of the government's road map to democracy, are a sham favoring the military.

"The way that the constitution was drawn up, the way that the road map has been designed and implemented, the way that the electoral rules have been set up so that the candidates have to pay a lot of money to register, so that the rules are stacked to the point where the military will have representatives based on a quota percentage in the assembly. So, this is not going to be a democratic outcome in the first instance," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak

The 2008 constitution sets aside a quarter of the seats in parliament for the military even before voting takes place.

Unlike smaller parties, the SPDC and the NUP have the financial backing to contest most of the remaining seats.

The NUP lost Burma's last elections in 1990, by a landslide, to the largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy.

But, the military ignored the results and locked up thousands of political opponents, including NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Authorities disbanded the NLD for boycotting this year's elections because of unfair rules.

Part of the NLD's members disagreed with the boycott and are participating in the elections as the third largest party, the National Democratic Forces, or NDF.

NDF spokesman Khin Maung Swe says they realize the elections are not free or fair but says participation is the only choice if they want their voices to be heard.

"Opposition partie[s] has no way to have executive power, you know, because we have only 36 percent if we combine our democrats' forces. So, our aim is not to get executive power. Our aim is to have a legislative floor in the parliament, to make law[s] which are beneficial to our people and country," said Khin Maung Swe.

There are more than 30 smaller parties contesting the elections, including ethnic minority-based parties such as the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, the fourth largest, and the Karen People's Party.

But, they are expected to do well mainly at the local level where they are a majority.

Other parties with democratic credentials include the Democratic Party Myanmar, the fifth largest in terms of candidates.

Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein is one of three general secretaries of the DPM, all of them are daughters of Burma's parliamentary era leaders.

She says the government is stealing the elections, but even a short term in office for some independent voices would help.

"We know that during these five years we won't be able to change everything, all the systems, in a very short pace. But, we are like water and the generals are like acid. If we mix acid with water they will become a little bit softer than before," she said.

The National League for Democracy, now a social charity organization, has been educating the electorate about their right not to vote.

The military government has threatened to stay in power if voter turn-out is too low.

Regardless of election results Sunday, the military says it must retain a significant role in the government to unify the country's main ethnic groups, some of which have engaged in separatist insurgencies for decades.