For all those people still recovering from the furiously contested mid-term vote in the U.S., it's time to rest easy. The November 7 election in Burma, where a military regime has ruled since a 1962 coup and nary a poll has been held for two decades, promises no such electoral drama. After all, the ruling junta has stacked the decks so thoroughly in its favor that the victory of army-backed parties seems almost assured. Indeed, opponents of the upcoming polls decry the exercise as little more than an attempt by the top brass to legitimize its grip on power. The National League for Democracy (NLD) the party that won the country's last polls back in 1990, which the junta then ignored has boycotted the elections, lest the results be interpreted as an oppressed citizenry's approval of continued military-dominated rule.
Nevertheless, in a tropical country where for decades political change has felt no more likely than a freak snowstorm, the elections herald a chance even if it's a tiny chance for something to shift in the political climate. In Burma, known by its rulers as Myanmar, even an incremental inching forward beats stasis. The moral high-ground taken by everyone from Western governments imposing financial sanctions on Burma to the influential Burmese exile community that has been working tirelessly from overseas to effect political change back home hasn't resulted in any significant political loosening. But in the walk-up to the vote, at least the mere mention of the word "politics" won't land someone in jail. That is a measure of change for a country that has been preserved in amber for 20 years. Hla Hla Win, a 28-year-old teacher with an education degree from an American college, now runs English and leadership courses in Rangoon, the country's largest city. "Before I was interested in politics, but I didn't want to end up in Insein [prison]," she says. There are still more than 2,100 political prisoners across Burma. But Hla Hla Win says she's "not scared to talk about politics anymore, and that's why I came back."
The country to which she returned certainly won't become a democracy at the stroke of midnight on Nov. 7. Under a constitution that received an unrealistically high 93% approval from the electorate in 2008, the military has reserved 25% of parliamentary seats for itself. Key leadership posts, like the presidency, cannot be filled by civilians. The country's most famous member of the political opposition, NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been barred from ever serving as head of state because of a rule seemingly designed specifically for her, which sidelines anyone who has been married to a foreigner. (Suu Kyi's late husband was a British academic.) Imprisoned for much of the past 20 years, Suu Kyi will see her most recent stint of house arrest expire just six days after the election.
Those opposition forces that have decided to contest the polls, around 30 disparate political parties and a dozen or so independent candidates, have complained of constant government-imposed obstacles to campaigning. Opposition candidates cannot directly criticize the junta. They cannot organize mass rallies. They cannot even campaign in small groups without filling in reams of paperwork with local authorities. Such impediments, of course, don't hinder the military's proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and, to a lesser extent, another government-associated bloc called the National Unity Party (NUP). The USDP, in particular, has enjoyed constant favorable coverage in the state-controlled media. It also can freely use state funds for campaign purposes.
In the run-up to Sunday's polls, reports of voter intimidation and vote buying have leaked out, especially in rural areas. Not that the junta has made it easy to know what's going on inside Burma the country's Internet connection has been severely limited over the past week, a slowdown many suspect is an attempt by the government to keep a free flow of information from influencing the polls. Independent monitors and foreign journalists have been banned from covering the balloting. The U.S., the E.U. and the U.N. have all warned that the election will be neither free nor fair.
Not content with the already considerable rigging in its favor, the junta in recent weeks has also canceled balloting in certain ethnic minority areas, deeming these pockets too unstable for voting. Roughly 40% of Burma's population hails from a diverse patchwork of ethnic groups, while the junta is exclusively ethnically Burman, also known as Bamar. Ever since the British departed in 1948, various ethnic rebel armies have fought against the central government. Although ceasefires have been signed with some of the biggest rebel groups, tensions between the Burman regime and the ethnic groups that are clustered in Burma's borderlands remain on a hair-trigger. Further inflaming anger was a decision last month by the junta's electoral commission to dissolve some ethnic minority parties that might have mounted a serious local challenge to the junta, such as the Kachin State Progressive Party that was likely to have garnered significant support in northern Kachin state.
Not that conditions are much better in regions where Burmans dominate. One weekday afternoon shortly before the election, at a time when campaigning would normally be in full swing in other countries, downtown Rangoon, the former capital, was unnaturally quiet, save for the sound of old diesel engines and betel nut juice being expectorated by pedestrians. Suddenly the silence was broken by a man in a green cap and longyi, as Burmese sarongs are known, broadcasting pledges through a megaphone. He was trailed by a dozen women, who handed out pamphlets to onlookers, few of whom looked eager to receive the campaign materials. "We will bring you uninterrupted electricity," said the candidate for the USDP, the junta's proxy party. "Clean streets and new buildings will be yours after the election."
In a city that has been slowly crumbling for decades people are regularly wounded by falling chunks of buildings and electricity is erratic at best such promises seem almost comical. After all, it has been under the military regime's watch that a once thriving city has so thoroughly decayed. But the USDP in recent months has been claiming credit for a slew of new government projects, from dams to bridges. The party's logo, a lion, is emblazoned on many posters advertising the new projects. "They promise everything, and we can say nothing," says an NLD supporter who is boycotting the polls. "This is not a real election. It's a joke."
Nevertheless, dozens of opposition candidates have decided to contest anyway. Many are from the ethnic parties, who hope that victory will allow them a modicum of control over local government policies, ranging from the use of native languages to dispersal of tax revenue. (In the 1990 polls, the party that came in second after the NLD was one representing the Shan ethnicity.) Other parties running on Nov. 7 are the tattered fragments of the non-racially based democratic opposition that trounced the junta's proxy party two decades ago. After Suu Kyi called for an electoral boycott earlier this year, a breakaway NLD group refashioned itself as the National Democratic Force (NDF). The party was only able to muster 160 candidates (in contrast to 1,100-plus for the USDP), in part because of more jiggering by the junta: opposition parties were only given a fortnight to find candidates, and each contender had to fork over a $500 registration fee to the government-controlled election commission. That amount is roughly equivalent to what an average Burmese makes in an entire year. Since campaigning has begun, the NDF has complained of persistent government pressure, ranging from its few posters being torn down to its supporters being harassed by special branch police.
Even the NUP, the second government-linked party, appears to be facing intimidation from the USDP machine. On Oct. 29, NUP candidate Kyaw Aye was injured in a motorcycle accident caused by an unknown perpetrator who fled the scene. The 70-year-old candidate happens to be the only man running against Thein Sein, Burma's current Prime Minister who heads the USDP. In the past, army-backed thugs have been dispatched to neutralize political opponents, most notoriously in 2003 when dozens of NLD supporters are believed to have been killed.
Given such a contentious and even dangerous climate, why run? Yan Kyaw, an independent who is contesting a seat in Rangoon and served time as a political prisoner, has a simple answer: "What other choice do we have? If we continue doing what we did before, we will all die before we get anywhere. I am an old man, but not so old that I want to die without doing anything." If he does end up in parliament, Yan Kyaw's powers will be limited, especially since the political opposition is fractured and the military has given itself ample authority to disregard much of what any legislature might attempt to do. The massive, gaudy parliament building in the new capital Naypyidaw could very well end up housing a rubber-stamp body; and there is the high probability of military intimidation of independent parliamentarians. But at least Yan Kyaw or others like him will be giving a small voice to the Burmese people. In a country with some of the most oppressed people in the world, that's almost more than anyone can really expect.