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Opinion: Myanmar vote a facade for the junta

By Christina Fink, Special to CNN
  • Christina Fink: Aim of election is to improve image of military junta
  • The West criticizes human rights record and is pressuring Asian national to take a tougher line
  • Fink says this election unlikely to see massive change but it could be a start
  • She says many brave people will continue trying to reform the country

Editor's note: Christina Fink is a political anthropologist who has focused on Myanmar, also known as Burma, for 15 years. She is the author of "Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule" and has written about the country's humanitarian crisis and ongoing militarization in Eastern Burma. She has also consulted for groups which support the strengthening of civil society and democratic reform in Burma.

(CNN) -- On November 7, Burma will hold elections for the first time in 20 years. Not because the military regime wants to transfer power. Instead, the military leadership hopes that by creating a democratic facade, it can improve its image and still run the country.

Since the military's 2007 crackdown on monks' demonstrations, the regime has faced simmering anger inside the country and growing calls for at least some degree of political reform from abroad.

The West has been the most outspoken in its criticism of the regime, which not only represses political dissent but has also mismanaged the economy and grossly neglected its citizens' welfare.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, comprised of both democratic and non-democratic member states, has come under great pressure from the West to take a tougher line on Burma.

China and India, which have competing security and economic interests in Burma, have generally called for non-interference in Burma's affairs. Still, China would like to see improvements in governance in order to reduce ethnic conflict and bring about greater economic stability.

The regime has concluded that as long as it holds elections, domestic and international pressure will subside. Yet the electoral process is so far from being free, fair and inclusive that many countries have already denounced it as a sham.

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Several pre-existing political parties are boycotting the 2010 elections. Together, they won more than 85 percent of the seats in the 1990 election but were not allowed to take power.

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They could not accept the 2008 constitution, which institutionalizes the leading role of the military in politics, or the requirement that parties expel all members currently in prison.

In the case of the National League for Democracy, that meant their charismatic general secretary and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, who's under detention along with several other party members.

Nevertheless, a number of people from the democratic camp, including a breakaway faction of the National League for Democracy, have decided to run in the elections.

While their expectations are low, they do not currently see any other viable means to bring about change.

They hope that through their participation in parliament, they can gradually open up some space for a civilian role in policy-making.

In the seven ethnic states, candidates have also stepped forward to try to obtain at least small gains for their communities, such as the right to teach their languages in schools and the improvement of the health care system in rural areas.

Requirements that parties pay $500 to register each candidate, a large sum in Burma, have limited the number of candidates that non-regime supported parties could field.

As a result, in many rural areas, voters will have only two choices: the regime-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and the National Unity Party, which was the military-supported party in the 1990 elections.

In addition, the 2008 constitution reserves 25 percent of the seats for military personnel.

Even if the pro-democracy and ethnic-based parties win in all the constituencies they contest, they will capture only a minority of the seats in the national parliament and the regional assemblies.

The president, elected by the parliament, must come from a military background, and the new constitution allows the military to reassume full control whenever it sees fit.

Many voters in Burma are cynical about the elections, believing that little will change and besides, it could be dangerous to express support for parties not in favor with the regime.

However, over time, the elected representatives from all parties may come under pressure from their constituents to deliver on their campaign promises.

Given the state's growing wealth from the sale of natural gas and other resources, expectations may rise for much more of this money to go to education, health, and electricity.

Still unknown is whether Aung San Suu Kyi will be freed after the elections and on what terms. She has been under house arrest for much of the past two decades, but her current period of detention is supposed to end in mid-November.

Will she and members of her de-registered party be able to meet and re-organize? What strategies will they adopt to continue the struggle for a better Burma?

While significant political change will not result directly from the elections, new dynamics may emerge, providing unexpected opportunities.

The regime still sees its own security as paramount, and more than 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars. Yet the military government has tolerated the emergence of some independent humanitarian organizations as well as a private, albeit censored, media.

Perhaps it will be possible to achieve improvements in other areas, such as economic and social welfare policy.

Despite the tremendous difficulties of bringing about genuine political reform in Burma, many brave people will continue to try, both within the parliament and without. The international community should do all it can to support them.