After months of speculation and waiting the date has finally been set: on November 7th, Burma will go to the polls for the first time in twenty years. Unfortunately for its sixty million people however, the election will be unlike anything that those of us lucky enough to live in democratic states would recognise.
The military dictators are desperate to prevent a re-run of 1990, when they held an election to try and alleviate the international pressure resulting from their massacre of thousands of demonstrators two years before. Back then, despite widespread ballot rigging, the presence of troops at polling stations, the murder of some democratic opposition candidates and the imprisonment of many more, the Burmese people defied dictatorial rule and voted overwhelmingly for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) –winning them 80% of parliamentary seats and allied ethnic parties several more.
Although the dictatorship ignored the results, refused to let parliament convene and imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, they were rocked by the result and suffered from worldwide recognition of their illegitimacy. That is why, this time, the restrictions will be even tighter. The NLD has been disbanded; Suu Kyi and many other activists remain in detention, barred from running; 25% of seats have been reserved for the military, and military-run proxy parties have been set up to occupy the remainder. The brutality of troops and the surveillance capacity of secret services have been stepped up; widespread famine and disease resulting from neglect, oppression and a rejection of aid following the 2008 cyclone has left many Burmese people understandably hopeless. And the country’s monks - so influential during the 2007 democratic uprising – have been formally excluded.
Even the most optimistic cannot help but admit that the outlook is bleak. A transfer from military dictatorship to proxy-military/civilian dictatorship is certain. The oppression, starvation and genocide will continue. Of course – the regulations have already been criticised by the UN and many democratic states – but the dictators will care little about this. Meanwhile those states such as India and China, so keen to court the generals for economic gain, are bound to welcome the election as a “democratic transition” and use it to justify their own deplorable positions.
If there are any glimmers of hope, they rest in the international awareness being raised about the situation inside Burma; the focal point for the exiled democracy movement and the fleeting outside chance that, over time, some of the parliamentarians may develop a degree of independence or resistance in the manner that small groups in Eritrea and Syria have.
None of this however, will bring much comfort to those who are languishing in torture chambers, watching their children starve or fleeing nationalistic genocide even as you read this.
That is why we should reject the dictatorship's sham, and rather do all we can to strengthen campaigns for democracy, pressure our governments over the 2000+ political prisoners, join the calls for the Generals to be brought before the International Criminal Court and never relent in shaming and boycotting those companies callously supporting the dictatorship for financial profit.
This election won’t save Burma- but together we can.