Will general election in Burma change anything?

James Wong Wing-On (Malaysiakini)
The military junta in Burma has set Nov 7 as the day for the ‘general election’ in the military-ruled country in South-East Asia. It is also widely expected that the military junta will effectively remain in absolute power after the election as the opposition is in disarray and split into those who are willing to give the ‘election’ a try and those who have decided that it is too meaningless for it to be entertained.
Also, not many countries in the world, not especially the United States that has changed its foreign policy strategy from total isolation to selective engagement under the Obama administration, are convinced that the junta-sponsored ‘election’ would be free, fair, inclusive and, therefore legitimate.
Malaysiakini interviewed associate professor Jatswan Singh Sidhu in his office recently to explore the various aspects of the ‘election’ in Burma. The Universiti Malaya-based Jatswan has been a leading Malaysian academic on Burma affairs for many years.
Malaysiakini: Is there any campaign by the opposition right now in Burma to ask the people to boycott the election, that seems to be geared at legitimising the military regime?
Jatswan Singh Sidhu: Yes, there are some groups like the 88 Generation Students that have called for a boycott of the election to be held on Nov 7. The 88 Generation Students is a group of prominent dissidents in Burma (fighting for democracy) whose members were involved in the 1988 uprising against the military junta in Yangon.
Large segments of Buddhist monks have also been quietly persuading the people not to vote. Aung San Suu Kyi has issued a statement asking the people to consider whether the election is free, fair and inclusive. She is expected to make a stronger statement as Nov 7 approaches.
In your observation, are the people in Burma enthusiastic about the election?
Given the media censorship and other forms of tight control inside Burma, it is difficult to gauge…
However, from what we can gather from the limited news and information that come out from that country, especially through the Internet, the people are generally not enthusiastic as the most respected opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been disbanded and cannot field candidates under its banner for the election.
There are reports that people in the rural areas are forced to join or support the junta-approved parties. It seems that there is a widespread sense of unhappiness and scepticism among the people inside Burma vis-à-vis the election.
Given the situation, it is difficult to estimate the turnout of the voters now or even after the polling has finished. In the 2008 ‘referendum’ on the new constitution, the official media in Burma claimed that 99 percent of the voters turned up for the poll and that 93 percent voted in favour of the junta-approved new constitution.
In view of the fact that many parts of Burma were just ravaged by Cyclone Nargis causing widespread suffering, how could the voters’ turnout be that high? Indeed, we can expect the official media in Burma to again orchestrate a propaganda campaign to show high turnout for the election to be held on Nov 7 in order to claim legitimacy.
Is the polling period expected to be trouble-free? Will the junta’s ‘electoral victory’ be challenged peacefully in Burma or can we expect violence?
The military junta in Burma seems to have learned lessons from the 1988 and 2007 uprisings and has since enforced even stricter controls. For example, university students in Yangon have been dispersed to campuses in less populated areas. And Buddhist monks too would be prevented from gathering en masse in Yangon and other major urban areas.
Many more dissidents have reportedly been rounded up and detained. Western disaster relief NGOs and journalists have been asked to leave and tourist visas have also been restricted. So, it is very unlikely that there would be major and massive incidents from now until Nov 7 at least. Beyond that, the opposition …still needs time to regroup or reorganise and to mount serious challenge to the military regime.
‘Business as usual for Asean’
Will Asean capitals accept the junta’s ‘electoral victory’ as legitimate or will it cause a split?
Asean capitals are not likely to take strong stands on the legitimacy of the electoral outcome in Burma although there may be mild voices to offer Burma guidance to democratisation from Jakarta and Manila. But Malaysia and Singapore, in particular, are more ‘sympathetic’ to the military regime as their economic and business relations with Burma are close.
Because of what happened in Thailand earlier this year, the Abhisit government seems to feel less self-confident to talk about democracy and human rights in Burma. From a broader perspective, since the day Burma was admitted as an Asean member in 1997, the legitimacy of the military junta has in effect been recognised by all Asean members.
We can expect that, as far as Burma is concerned, Asean will go on with “business as usual” after the election.
The official position of the US and its European allies is that the election will not be legitimate. Will Asean’s stand have any bearing on this?
The US and EU will not be bothered about Asean’s stand on Burma. The Western democracies will continue to raise issues and find ways and means to pressure the military junta, including selective and targeted sanctions.
There is also now an effort to bring the military junta in Burma to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges of genocide. It is expected that the ICC on Burma will be instituted by December this year. As a matter of fact, since the 1997 admission of Burma into Asean, the United States and European Union have not been happy about it. The election will not change that.