Hot air is a fact of life in most of Burma, but is the country’s first elections in 20 years anything more than hype for people around the old capital Rangoon, and elsewhere?
Broad perspectives are hard to gauge, for despite regular promises of “free and fair”, it is “fear and fear” that seems a more appropriate description of people’s approaches to discussing ‘their’ voice in politics.
Nor does the paraphernalia of the process seem to reflect much. In Rangoon today it is hard to find posters of any parties other than those of the military’s latest creation, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Its golden lion, judiciously chosen unilaterally while most parties had to lump with a prescribed symbol from the Election Commission, is ubiquitous on lampposts and posters, even regal-looking head stones at the entrance to townships.
The somewhat ironic symbol of the National Unity Party (NUP), the husk of rice, can be seen fluttering around town now and then on their aged campaign car. But as for the others, good luck.
In the market, as one surveys the wreckage of the military’s economy through torturous money-counting exercises done to avoid the absurd “official exchange rate”, the money changer jovially makes a noose round his neck as he moans about the government. When asked about the election he does not pause, but thunders on about the price of a car permit, let alone the price of the vehicle.
One magazine editor is determined however that people voice their opinion as much as possible through the ballot. While concerned that any boycott will simply maintain the status quo, he is at pains to explain that even should the “democratic forces” win all their seats – not impossible – they would still not have a majority in the parliament.
For as Khin Maung Swe, leader of the opposition National Democratic Force (NDF), explains, “we are the poor party”. He adds that without funds and the time to raise those funds, the party, which in any normal circumstance would be looking at a landslide, cannot contest most seats.
As for context, one taxi driver’s words run: “this is not my election, this is the military’s election”, indicating he wants no part of it; as if the process were so stained by ill intent and corrupted by poisons unknown to most democracies that mere participation would infect.
In any case, foreign journalists working in Rangoon indicate a belief that “things have changed already”; that their publication was getting more lenience than before.
In the quiet pot-holed roads of Mandalay division there are also more signs of pluralism in the polls, as the red poster with the golden hat of the NDF appears on shops and elsewhere. It must seem mildly revelatory, after some 20 years in which many of the party members were locked up and had no chance of displaying any sort of political appendage in public.
This area is considered “more lively” by the magazine editor, who believes that the combination of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) and the NDF will be a victorious and defining team.
But in a mosque back in suburban Rangoon, the Imam says of the election that he will “back the government side; under pressure, you understand?” Little else of the elections or politics can be gleaned from the quiet priest who has previously elaborated how his minority is the most down trodden – “not by the Burmese, by the government”.