The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Hope on the Horizon?

Burma’s election won’t deliver anything like genuine democracy, but it has stirred expectations of better things to come

Despite the near certainty that this year’s election will bring no real change to Burma’s political landscape, there are subtle signs of growing interest in the polls among ordinary Burmese. From the suburbs of Rangoon to the hills of Shan State, the mood in at least some quarters is surprisingly upbeat, if still very tentative about what the country’s first election in two decades will mean for its future.

Much of this muted sense of anticipation seems to stem from a feeling that the regime-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is not the unstoppable juggernaut that most outsiders believe it to be. Although it has vastly greater resources at its disposal than any other party and stands to win by default in many constituencies where the cash-strapped opposition parties will be unable to run, it could still lose in some key areas, according to local observers.

The USDP is “terrified that it will not win in Rangoon,” said one political analyst. “It’s a matter of face. Rangoon is the biggest city in the country, and if they lose here, it will be a huge embarrassment.”

He added, however, that while the party fears that it will be “punished for being a proxy of the current regime,” it may be able to avert this outcome by running “exceptionally strong candidates who actually want to improve the lives of people in their constituencies.” If this happened, he said, “I would be happy to see them win.”

Others appeared to share this sentiment. While the lack of an even playing field has been a major issue among critics of the election, many would-be voters appear to have other priorities.

Pointing to her dilapidated roof, Khin Khin, a mother of five living in Rangoon’s Dagon Township, said the USDP had offered her a loan for repairs if she voted for them. She said that although her heart was with the National League for Democracy, the recently disbanded party that won 80 percent of the seats in the last election in 1990, she was seriously considering casting a ballot for the pro-regime party this time around.

“I know they are not perfect, but I think they will help us,” she said. “At least now they are starting to think about helping the people. We have never experienced this mentality before.”

In more affluent areas of the former capital, support for the election—if not for the USDP—was even more noticeable, especially among the young. A prominent underground hip-hop artist said that “lots of the kids are excited” about the election, even though most recognized that it was a sham.

“They have never seen any political change in their lives, so it gives them hope that we can get a better government in the future, not just people being imprisoned,” he said.

But attitudes toward the USDP are, at best, ambivalent. Bo Bo, a university student who said he was forced to join the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), the predecessor of the USDP, when he was a high school student, said he felt he should probably vote for the party, but hesitated to do so because he was worried it would “prevent development in our country.”

Such misgivings are common among those looking to the party for more than just promises of cheap loans. A local journalist who attended the opening of the USDP’s headquarters in Rangoon said that the party appeared to put little thought into formulating a clear platform.

“There was no one there who could even explain their policies,” he said. “They just kept referring to themselves as the government. I don’t think they even realized that they are now their own party.”

Far from Rangoon, in areas predominantly populated by ethnic minorities, the relationship between the USDP and local people is even more convoluted.

Khun Oo, a villager in a remote part of Shan State, said that he hadn’t put much thought into who he would vote for because he wasn’t really interested in the election. Besides, he said, it was up to the village leader to decide who they should support.

Later, however, Khun Oo revealed that a decision had already been made: The village would back the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, but not overwhelmingly. A large block of votes would also be cast for the USDP, to ensure that the village didn’t fall into disfavor with the party that was in line to become the face of a new military-backed civilian government.

“This is villager resistance,” said another man, explaining that local people have learned from decades of conflict that they need to placate both sides if they want to survive.

Other ethnic groups are also thinking strategically about how to make the most of the election. There will even be two parties representing the Rohingya, a Muslim minority from northern Arakan State often described as one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Like others contesting the election in November, their expectations are modest, but they hope to at least improve conditions for the 2015 election.

In other areas, ethnic parties have a more urgent agenda. A representative of the Wa National Unity Party, for instance, said that the election could help defuse a potentially explosive situation in the Wa regions of northern and eastern Shan State, where there is a growing risk of a return to hostilities after two decades of relative peace under a cease-fire agreement between Wa rebels and the Burmese regime. “In parliament we hope to stop tensions between the Wa army and the government,” he said.

Similarly, in Karen State, the chairman of the Phalon Sawaw Democratic Party, Khin Maung Myint, said he believed the election could help end the conflict that has made the state one of the most dangerous and unstable places in the country. Speaking to domestic media, he said: “I think everyone in Kayin [Karen] State is hoping for peace.”

It is unclear, however, how any of these parties will achieve their stated goals, given the overwhelming influence that the military will retain after the election. The ministers for defense, home affairs and border affairs, for instance, will all be military personnel nominated by the commander in chief, while other key cabinet positions will be appointed solely by the president, who is predicted to be a leading general.

But this has not dampened the spirits of those who have made the bold move to participate in the election. While everyone recognizes that the vote will take place under conditions that are far from perfect, many remain hopeful that they are now laying the foundation for Burma’s future political system. As one politician put it, the election “has created a conversation between people who have not spoken for decades—and this has to be a good thing.” 

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