Reclusive Burma sets date for elections

Burma will hold its first parliamentary poll in two decades on November 7, state media said on Friday, ending speculation over the timing of a vote rights groups see as a sham aimed at entrenching military power.

The United States, Britain and human rights groups have said the elections would be illegitimate if the military junta denies a role to thousands of imprisoned political opponents, including Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

The election takes place about a week before Suu Kyi is expected to be freed from house arrest on November 13.

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won by a landslide in the last elections in 1990 only to be denied power by the military, has refused to register with the authorities in protest of election laws it says are unjust.

Forty parties have registered to take part in the elections for the first civilian government in almost half a century in the reclusive, army-ruled country of 48-million people. But several big parties said the poll’s timing undermined their ability to raise funds.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in New York he has “taken note” of the announcement while reiterating his calls for the military junta “to honour their publicly stated commitments to hold inclusive, free and fair elections”.

He urged the release of “all remaining political prisoners” — which his spokesperson said included Suu Kyi.

US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement dismissing Burma’s announcement as a “charade” and a “mockery of the democratic process”.

“No one should be fooled,” said Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch. “The generals may be exchanging their khakis for civilian clothes, but these polls are still a carefully arranged plan to keep power in the hands of the military.”

Military proxies
Many diplomats and analysts also see the polls as intended to strengthen the military’s power under the guise of civilian rule in an attempt to lure investment to the resource-rich country, nestled strategically between booming China and India.

A dozen parties registered with the election commission are believed to be proxies of the military, which will retain control of key ministries and enjoy a 25% quota of parliamentary seats under a new constitution.

The armed forces chief will be more senior than the president. There are no signs an estimated 2 000 political prisoners will be released before or after the elections.

Suu Kyi has spent 15 of the past 21 years in detention and remains under house arrest. Even if she were freed, she is barred from running because of her criminal record and because her late husband was a foreigner.

Her NLD party was dissolved this year after deciding not to register for the polls.

The National Democratic Force (NDF), a renegade faction of the NLD opposed by Suu Kyi, is running to challenge the junta’s proxies but is not expected to gain traction without her.

NDF chairperson Than Nyein told Reuters the election timing was unfair because it requires the submission of a list of candidates for parliamentary seats by August 30, a deadline he described as “out of the question”.

“Before we submit the list, we have so many things to do including raising funds,” he said. “How can we carry out these things in about 20 days?”

Only 11 of 40 registered parties have submitted lists of candidates, according to the Election Commission.

The Union Democracy Party (UDP), another major opposition party, has threatened to withdraw from the elections if there are signs of foul play by the ruling military in the run-up to the polls.

“We are not ready yet at all,” UDP chairperson Thein Htay told Reuters. “We are still trying to set up committees in the provinces. It is quite clear they purposely planned it this way to cause inconvenience.”

Some parties also accuse the regime’s military intelligence unit of spying on and trying to intimidate their members.

Political analysts and diplomats, however, say the election could mark a turning point that, over the longer term, delivers a gradual transition of power to a civilian government free of military control.

They add that this would be an evolutionary process rather than a junta-inspired shift. – Reuters

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