Myanmar Holds First Election Since 1990; Suu Kyi Still Detained

Military-run Myanmar will hold its first election in two decades on Nov. 7, a vote denounced by Western nations as a sham and embraced by Asian neighbors eager to gain access to natural resources.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who led her party to a landslide victory in 1990 in a result nullified by the junta, is spearheading a boycott of this ballot while under house arrest. The military will retain 25 percent of parliamentary seats, with the rest contested by 37 parties, including one formed by Prime Minister Thein Sein that claims a third of the population as members.

“The election won’t change where central power lies, but it’s the first time in 50 years in which there are likely to be opposition voices in Parliament,” said David Steinberg, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University. “There’s the possibility that more space between the individual and the state can develop even under this controlled system.”

The ballot may lead to further divisions between western nations and Asia in dealing with Southeast Asia’s poorest country. Myanmar’s strategic location on the Indian Ocean has attracted investments in ports, railways and oil and gas pipelines from China, India and Thailand, undercutting U.S. and European efforts to pressure the regime with sanctions.

The country formerly known as Burma has been under military rule since 1962. The government has banned overseas journalists and diplomats from entering Myanmar to observe the election and rejected United Nations assistance in organizing the vote. Besides Suu Kyi, some 2,000 dissidents remain jailed.

‘Climate of Fear’

The elections “are being conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation, and resignation,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a Nov. 3 statement. “These elections are about elite military transformation, not democratic transition, and offer little change to Burma’s deplorable human rights situation.”

Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win told counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that Suu Kyi may be released soon after the election. The Nobel laureate has been detained for 15 of the past 21 years, with her latest house arrest starting in 2003.

Several pro-democracy parties are running in the election, including one created by former members of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which was dissolved by law after it declined to register for the election. They are fielding candidates in less than half of the races, according to Human Rights Watch.

‘Virtually Inclusive’

The participation of 37 political parties makes the vote “virtually inclusive,” Nyan Win told the UN General Assembly on Sept. 28 in New York. “The people will exercise their democratic right to elect the representatives of their own choice who can serve their interest better.”

Junta leader Than Shwe, 77, remains eligible for president even though he’s not standing for office, according to the constitution. Amendments require the votes of more than 75 percent of lawmakers, giving the military effective veto power.

The generals see the election as a “way of institutionalizing succession without having their own people fighting each other,” said Tin Maung Maung Than, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “Practically, you have to manage it in order not to lose your grip.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the election “deeply flawed” on Oct. 29 and said the U.S. would tell the new leaders “they must break from the policies of the past.” China respects the vote and hopes it runs smoothly, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported yesterday, citing Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

U.S. Sanctions

The U.S. maintains trade and financial sanctions against the regime, and legislators are pushing President Barack Obama to start targeting banks that hold offshore accounts for junta leaders. Europe has similar restrictions in place.

Myanmar’s exports to the U.S. and European Union amounted to less than 4 percent of total overseas sales last year, according to European data. China, India and Thailand account for about two-thirds of Myanmar’s commerce.

Italian-Thai Development Pcl, Thailand’s biggest construction company, signed an $8.6 billion contract this week with Myanmar to build a deep-sea port and industrial estate. Earlier this year, China National Petroleum Corp. started building oil and gas pipelines across the country, and India approved plans for Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and GAIL India Ltd. to invest a combined $1.3 billion in a natural gas project.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE