Is Burma ready for a new election?

Htet Aung Kyaw

Jul 18, 2008 (DVB), Although the National League for Democracy and main ethnic parties didn’t recognise the results of the constitutional referendum in May, the ruling junta is now gearing up to drag the opposition into a new election.

So is there any chance of a compromise before the 2010 election?

Many activists, including leading members of the NLD, were upset when the state media urged them to prepare for the forthcoming elections instead of clinging to the 1990 election results.

In fact, this is not first time in the last 18 years that the junta’s propaganda machine has told them to forget the 1990 result. But it is the first direct challenge to the NLD since the junta adopted its new constitution last month.

"This has been forced through at gunpoint" said Thein Nyunt, constitutional affairs spokesperson for the NLD. "We don’t recognize their announcement and so we won't prepare for a new election."

He claimed the NLD would pursue all avenues to challenge the SPDC on the fairness and legitimacy of the constitutional referendum.

However, the situation on the ground is not the same as it was in 1990. "We are preparing to form a political party for the 2010 election. This is an opportunity for us," says Za Khun Ting Ring, chairman of the New Democratic Army-Kachin, a ceasefire group based on the China-Burma border.

"If we oppose the seven-step road map, there is no way to move ahead. So we must follow it to bring about a civilian government," the 62-year-old former rebel leader told this correspondent in a telephone interview.

The NDA-K and dozens of former rebel armies who signed ceasefire agreements with the junta in the 1990s attended the government-backed National Convention in 2004 to draw up the guidelines for the constitution which the junta adopted last month.

Apart from the opposition and ethnic groups, the notorious pro-junta Union Solidarity Development Association is systematically preparing for the election. "Their latest move was to select two candidates to stand as MPs in each township who are well-educated, rich and respected in their communities," said Htay Aung, author of a book on the USDA called "Whiteshirts" which compares the organisation to Hitler’s Nazi "Brownshirts".

Founded in 1993 and the darling of general Than Shwe, the USDA civilian wing is now 27 million strong in a country of 55 million people. The USDA has played key roles in attacking Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade in 2003, organising the mass rallies in support of the National Convention in 2006 and forcing people to vote "Yes" in the constitutional referendum in May.

Major Aung Lin Htut, a key member of former prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt’s spy network, said that most of the USDA's leading members were opportunists who were trying to win the favour of general Than Shwe. "But they not yet getting any support from army chief general Maung Aye and front line troops." the former spy says.

Another challenge for the USDA and Than Shwe will be to gain support from former rebel armies, he pointed out. "Many know well how general Than Shwe broke his promise on the 1990 election result but very few know how he ignored his promises to ceasefire groups," major Aung Lin Htut said.

This view is shared by the New Mon State Party, one of 17 former ethnic rebel groups. "We walked out of the National Convention when they rejected our proposals. That was broken promise which they agreed in 1995 ceasefire agreement" said Nai Aung Ma-nge, a spokesperson for the Thai-Burma border-based Mon rebel group.

"So we do not accept the referendum, constitution or election. The SPDC should seriously consider how to guarantee the futures of 100,000 strong troops from former rebel groups before the election," the outspoken rebel leader said.

In this scenario, can there be any opportunity left to reconsider the SPDC-led seven-step road map before the 2010 election?

Yes, if the UN-led international community works seriously for Burma this time.

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders well knew how badly the SPDC had dealt with the aid operation to support millions of survivors after Cyclone Nargis struck on 2-3 May leaving 135,000 people dead and missing.

But Ban did not say a word about politics when he meet Than Shwe in Naypyidaw and focused only on humanitarian mission. However, Than Shwe didn’t listen to the UN chief's warnings but went ahead with all his political plans; the constitutional referendum in May, the adoption of the constitution in June and now the preparations for an election.

As Than Shwe’s seven-step road map draws near completion, the UN special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, was invited to visit Naypyidaw in mid-August. Although there was no tangible outcome from his last visit in March, the door is still open for dialogue. Aung Kyi who was appointed minister for relations with Aung San Suu Kyi after last September’s Saffron Revolution is still in post but has been left twiddling his thumbs at the moment.

Former UN special envoy to Burma Razali Ismail supports keeping the way clear for dialogue but warns that the Burmese themselves must do more. "The ability to talk to the regime must be maintained in all aspects, including the political," he told this correspondent in a telephone conversation.

"I don’t think the people of Myanmar should lose hope in the UN. The UN is doing the best it can," he went on. "When I was working there, I was doing the best I could, but finally it is up to the government and the people of Myanmar to make all the necessary changes."

Htet Aung Kyaw is a journalist for the Oslo-Based Democratic Voice of Burma.

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