Monday, 1 November 2010

Why is Burma Holding an Election?


Despite Burma's seemingly inexorable drift into rogue-state status, observers are divided over what might result from the election. Some say that despite being carefully stage-managed, it could prompt gradual reforms, comparing Burma with countries such as Chile, Egypt, and Taiwan, which have slowly liberalized away from autocratic rule.
Others hold fast to the idea of a boycott. Aung San Suu Kyi—under house arrest and barred from participating in the election after John Yettaw, a Mormon from Falcon, Miss., swam to her secluded lakeside residence in Rangoon in 2009—has urged Burmese citizens to stay home on Election Day, and international activists are running a campaign to ensure a low voter turnout.
The divide is also mirrored in the Burmese opposition movement: The largest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, is made up of ex-NLD members who refused to take part in a boycott. A raft of other opposition groups—many ethnically affiliated—are also contending the elections in the hope that they can gain some leverage over the direction of government.
But Burma's long-term stability may depend on the very thing that has troubled it most since it won independence from Britain in 1948: Its raft of simmering ethnic conflicts. In September, exile media outlets reported an increased flow of illicit drugs into Thailand from areas controlled by the United Wa State Army—thought by many to be one of the largest drug-trafficking organizations in the world—in anticipation of clashes with the Burmese army. The 20,000-strong UWSA, one of a number of ethnic militias to have signed cease-fire agreements with the government in exchange for local autonomy, has been ordered to join a centralized border guard force. So far, the UWSA and several other groups have refused, setting the stage for a possible return to open conflict.
It's too soon to say what a "democracy with Burmese characteristics" might look like in practice, but the signs so far are not especially promising.

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