What's Next for Burma Opposition After Elections?

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Campaign signs dot a street in Rangoon, Burma

Polling stations were set up across Burma for an electorate of 29 million people, and candidates from 37 parties contested the Nov. 7 elections. But despite the trappings of political openness, the country's first elections in two decades were hardly an exercise in democracy. As the first results trickled in, the victors predictably predominated from one party, whose logo is an all-powerful lion: the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the proxy for a military regime that, in one form or another, has brutally ruled Burma, which it calls Myanmar, for nearly five decades.

Local sources described the mood on election day in Rangoon, the country's commercial capital and largest city, as unnaturally quiet. There were few lines at polling stations, said on-the-ground witnesses, a sign that a significant portion of the electorate had chosen not to vote. It was not clear, however, whether the limited balloting was due to a belief that the results had been preordained by the ruling junta or to a boycott call by the popular National League for Democracy (NLD), the country's main opposition party, which disbanded itself rather than contest polls that were so obviously skewed in the military's favor.

Because of numerous campaign restrictions and hefty registration fees, the leading opposition party, an NLD breakaway group called the National Democratic Force (NDF), could muster only 164 parliamentary contenders. By contrast, the USDP and the National Unity Party (NUP), another military-backed party, fielded about 1,000 candidates each. In sum, even if all the democratic opposition candidates were declared victorious — a practical impossibility given voter intimidation and irregularities — they would still not outnumber the pro-government forces in parliament. U.S. President Barack Obama characterized the polls as "anything but free and fair," adding that "for too long the people of Burma have been denied the right to determine their own destiny."

Indeed, even before a single vote was cast, the polls were hampered by a host of roadblocks. About 1 million voters were disenfranchised when the junta decided in the weeks leading up to the election to cancel the polls in regions where ethnic minorities have been at odds with the central government. The regime conveniently decided to reserve one-quarter of parliamentary seats and many top ministerial posts for military appointees. The USDP freely spent millions of dollars of state funds on campaigning, even as one-third of Burma lives under the poverty line. Not only did the army's party have the bully pulpit of the state-run media at its disposal, but its ranks were packed with a host of recently retired generals whom voting against could be a fearsome prospect for many cowed Burmese. By contrast, many of the most well-known members of the country's political opposition were barred from taking part in the polls by a series of arcane electoral laws. The most notable missing candidate was detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose NLD had won the last balloting in 1990, only to have the military ignore the election results. (Some 2,100 political prisoners are still languishing in Burmese jails.)

Those opposition parties that did take part, including the NDF and a host of ethnically based parties, had even more to complain about come election day. Half a dozen parties presented evidence of civil servants' being forced to vote for the USDP, while many thousands of voters were compelled to participate in advance voting, which makes it easier for officials to commit electoral fraud. Some voters, especially those planning to cast their ballots for the opposition, turned up at polling stations only to find their names mysteriously missing from the electoral rolls. "I looked and looked, but my name was not there," says one Rangoon resident. "I don't think it was a mistake."

In both the southeastern Mon state and northeastern Shan state, where ethnic minorities abound, ethnic parties accused polling officials of taking illiterate voters' ballots and filling them out in support of the USDP. "This was an election in name only," says a Western diplomat. "We all know what the results will be, so no one's holding their breath." (A small group of diplomats taken on a stage-managed tour of polling stations by Burmese government officials included an envoy from North Korea, hardly the most qualified individual to conduct election monitoring.)

As flawed as the election may have been, there may be some cause for guarded optimism. By Monday afternoon, Khin Maung Swe, a spokesman for the NDF, said he believed that at least 10 NDF candidates had won their races, including several in Rangoon constituencies. However, mysterious boxes filled with advance votes heavily favoring the USDP had been tallied the previous night in some areas, turning earlier counts favoring the NDF upside down. The government-controlled election commission has not bothered to tell the opposition parties when they will be announcing the official results. Still, the NDF leader remains hopeful, despite talk about a possible boycott of election results if they stray too far from what opposition parties believe are the expected returns. "In the tea shops or on the street, it is impossible to criticize the government," he told TIME, as he fielded updates on the vote counts. "But in parliament, even if we have only one or two people in place, we can speak out on behalf of the people and make our criticisms publicly."

In the ethnic-minority areas where votes were not denied — and where sentiment against the exclusively ethnically Burman (or Bamar) junta is overflowing — parties representing ethnic groups like the Arakan (or Rakhine), the Shan and the Mon have expressed confidence in a strong showing by their candidates, particularly in the regional assemblies that are supposed to make policy on a local level. Indeed, even if only a small corps of opposition MPs ends up serving in the grandiose legislature, recently built in the junta's new capital of Naypyidaw, it will be an improvement over the current situation, in which the military rules with no check on its power. Says one local observer: "As rigged as the elections [were], and as limited access to decisionmaking elected MPs may have, the ongoing political process [is] the only way out of the crisis that has afflicted the country." A report published on Monday by a local organization that monitored 159 polling stations agreed: "While this election clearly fell short of international standards, it marks an important step forward toward a more democratic state. Political parties and voters are well aware that the playing field for this election was not level — but many have decided to take advantage of the small window of political space that has opened."

Meanwhile, as the votes are still being counted — fairly or unfairly — Burma is gearing up for another possible political milestone. On Nov. 13, the latest term of house arrest will expire for democracy icon Suu Kyi. The daughter of Aung San, Burma's assassinated independence hero, Suu Kyi is beloved by the Burmese people — yet she has spent most of the past two decades in detention. On previous occasions when Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, she dived right back into politics at considerable personal risk. In 2003, army-backed thugs killed dozens of her supporters while she was out mingling with Burmese citizens in the town of Depayin. Through intermediaries, the 65-year-old Suu Kyi has sent signals that if she is released again, she will reimmerse herself in politics anew, even expressing an interest in opening a Twitter account. But this time, the noble dissident known in Burma as "the Lady" has no formal political mantle to claim as the winner of the ignored 1990 polls. Her NLD party has been dissolved for boycotting the Nov. 7 elections — a decision that came at Suu Kyi's behest. What can she offer to move her beleaguered nation forward? Perhaps more than the election results themselves, it is what the Lady will say that Burma is really waiting to hear.