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Burma's Elections Undemocratic But May Offer Some Change

Members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party drive a campaign vehicle with posters of the party's candidates who are running in the Nov. 7 general elections in Yangon, Burma, 31 Oct 2010
Members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party drive a campaign vehicle with posters of the party's candidates who are running in the Nov. 7 general elections in Yangon, Burma, 31 Oct 2010

Critics dismiss Burma's first elections in two decades as a sham designed to keep a repressive military government in power. But some political analysts say, despite its limitations, the elections could allow dissenting voices in the government for the first time in decades. Because foreign journalists are not allowed into Burma to cover the election, our correspondent reports from Mae Sot, Thailand, on the border.

After nearly 50 years in power, Burma's military says the first elections in 20 years are part of a plan to return to civilian democracy.

Military controls everything

But the military has the largest political parties and has disbanded the National League for Democracy, the main opposition, for refusing to expel leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The NLD won Burma's last elections but the military ignored the results and forced many members to flee to Thailand.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained for most of the past 20 years, and thousands of government critics have been imprisoned.

Win Hlaing, joint secretary of Burma's government in exile, says even if non-military parties are elected, only a few democratic voices will be heard.

"Their voice cannot overwhelm the hundreds and thousands of voice[s] by the military dominated MPs inside parliament in the future," said Win Hlaing.

A splinter group of the NLD, the National Democratic Force, and over 30 smaller parties are contesting the elections.

Bo Kyi was jailed for several years for being a democracy activist. He fled to Thailand 10 years ago and founded the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma.

Standing next to a model of Rangoon's infamous Insein prison, he holds up heavy metal chains to show how he was treated by his captors.

"I have to shackle with this, it was like this, for two weeks," said Bo Kyi. "Then every day I was beaten."

Bo Kyi says the elections rules favor parties led by former military officers. The constitution also gives a quarter of the parliament seats to the military.

"We can see just only military uniform to civilian uniform," he said. "That's all we will get. Therefore, if there is no changes for the political system we cannot expect for the improvement of prison conditions, the improvement of health care system, improvement of education system."

The Thai border town of Mae Sot attracts refugees and migrants from Burma to work on farms and in factories.

Workers perch on the wall outside one factory to watch a community soccer game.

Farm laborer Than Zew says he would return to Burma to vote if he did not have to work.

He says there are no jobs in Burma but he hopes after the elections Burma will become a democracy and migrant workers will be able to return to live and work back home.

In the busy Mae Sot market, Thein Aung works as a porter. He says even if he had time to return to vote he would not bother.

Opposition leader remains under house arrest

He says the government will steal all the votes, the elections will not be free and fair, and their leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest.

The military has threatened to continue ruling if voter turn-out is low.

Khin Ohmar, coordinator of the Burma Partnership coalition promoting democracy, says while many migrants feel their votes will not be counted others are afraid of punishment if they do not cross over to Burma to vote.

"So, what is the choice that they have? You know like, after they've been put under this kind of intimidation, harassment and fear," said Khin Ohmar. "They don't see a choice. So, they're going back to give the vote that the regime wants."

Because of concerns about the election's fairness the NLD and some democracy activists urge the international community not to recognize the results.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, says even though the elections are a sham, they could still offer space for political progress.

"It doesn't mean that it's going to be a democratic regime of legitimate, civilian political leaders," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak. "But, the space could be that you know once you have this dynamic you will have empowered new vested interests who may want a different kind of future and who may broker a different kind of arrangement."

Regardless of the election results, military leaders say they must retain a significant role in the government to prevent ethnic insurgents along the border from splitting the country.