Burma's generals prepare rigged election

Burma’s military government, the so-called State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is planning to hold elections some time in 2010, on yet-to-be-announced date. This follows approval of a new constitution amid chaos following the deadly Nargis cyclone in 2008. The SPDC has already done a great deal to ensure that the nationwide elections won’t change much in the way the country is run.

One-fourth of the post-election parliament will consist of representatives appointed by the military regime. The constitution also gives the military full immunity from prosecution for past transgressions, secures the wealth of officers and is intended to prevent electoral reform and the ascension to government of the pro-democracy opposition. Any deviation from the immunity clause in particular would likely impel the army generals to launch another coup. In the view of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, and its allies, including parties based on the country’s ethnic minorities, the constitution is merely a tool to legitimise the military’s political rule, and any election based on such a document will be a sham.

The junta is also expanding military-controlled business enterprises, including the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), to ensure that the military has its own budget that cannot be controlled by parliament, even after a new government is formed. Meanwhile, the lack of transparency and public accountability in the management of state projects ensures that these benefit a handful of SPDC-favoured business tycoons.

US President Barack Obama’s government has followed up its announced policy of “engagement” with Burma’s military regime by sending a high-level delegation to Naypyidaw, the first in 14 years.

Concerned over geopolitical competition and frustrated by the inability of previous US policy to persuade the generals to clean up their act a little, US policy makers have shifted towards a carrot and stick approach. However, there appears little likelihood of the use of sticks against Burma’s generals at the moment.

The military junta would like the US and its allies to withdraw sanctions and to endorse its election plan without raising questions over the constitution’s approval in a highly compromised referendum in May 2008. The SPDC seems intent on playing a game of international diplomacy — wooing the US with the China card. The junta knows very well the support it can expect from neighbouring countries, particularly China, with its veto power in the UN Security Council. If forced to choose between patrons, Burma’s generals would likely abandon the US and return to a state of selective isolationism.

Despite the pretence that the new constitution will bring about change, is a pitiful document — it does not include recognition of popular sovereignty or allow political freedoms, give political amnesty other than to the SPDC.