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Myanmar schedules first election in two decades

The Myanmar election announced Friday, the first in two decades, will do little to foster democracy or challenge the grip of the secretive military regime, analysts said. But the Nov. 7 vote probably will provide what the government wants: the patina of legitimacy that its allies seek in maintaining relations.

Myanmar’s military leadership, headed by Senior Gen. Than Shwe, doesn’t expect the highly restricted parliamentary election to win many points with the United States and European Union, which have dismissed it in advance as little more than window dressing.

But the powers upon which Myanmar depends — China and India, which covet its rich natural resources — and members of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, have welcomed the election, even as they defend their ties with the regime.

The brief announcement on state television ended months of speculation on the timing on the vote in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

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“The guessing game is over,” said Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in Thailand. “China, India and ASEAN are going to recognize the results, so who needs the West? The importance of winning the election is [that] they can say they won the support of the people.”

Analysts believe the date was chosen to limit top opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to influence the outcome. She is scheduled to be released from house arrest on Nov. 22. The Nobel laureate has spent 15 of the last 21 years in detention.

Some observers also speculate that the superstitious leadership considered the date, 11/7, auspicious. Eleven is believed by some a number for vanquishing enemies, and 11 plus seven adds up to 18, whose digits add up to 9, a lucky number in Myanmar.

Than Shwe moved the capital from Yangon, also known as Rangoon, in 2005, reportedly because his astrologers assured him that the switch would help him maintain power. Last month, the 77-year-old led a 77-person delegation to India.

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The regime has spent years preparing for this election. A new constitution enacted in 2008, new election rules this year and the extension of Suu Kyi’s house arrest last year, analysts said, were crafted to blunt challenges and avoid a repeat of its drubbing in elections in 1990.

The military entered the election that year confident of victory only to see Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party win in a landslide, garnering 392 of 492 parliament seats. Shocked, the generals refused to recognize the results.

This time, the National League refused to register, in protest over what it termed unjust election laws; the party was disbanded in May under those same laws. About 40 parties have registered, of which at least seven are said to be proxies of the military.

By law, 25% of the seats are reserved for military personnel no matter the outcome, and most analysts say the regime will have little trouble securing another 25% to 35% of the seats through allies, proxies, business cronies and its control over state machinery, ensuring its grip on power.

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Further safeguarding its position, other rules ensure that key positions remain in government hands. “So even if a majority of civilians were elected, they would still have no power,” said Htun Htun, coordinator of information at Burma Center Delhi, an advocacy group based in India.

Though the outcome appears a foregone conclusion, some analysts said the election could still represent an important, if shaky, first step toward reform.

Self-interest has driven China, Myanmar’s closest ally and no huge fan of democracy, to push the nation’s generals to hold the election and enact reforms, analysts said.

China is Myanmar’s biggest investor — it accounted for 87% of all official foreign investments in 2008-09, a total of $856 million, by some estimates — and there is a sizable Chinese population in the country. Beijing also fears that unrest could drive refugees across their shared border, as occurred last year.

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“The Chinese government has been disturbed over the last few years at the regime’s lack of progress toward political and economic reform,” said Ian Storey, a fellow with Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “Instability is not good for its investments.”

Political parties in Myanmar, which are required to submit lists of candidates by Aug. 30, are not expected to mount particularly raucous campaigns, given the regime’s fear of public gatherings and tight rules that bar the parties from marching, chanting or saying anything at rallies that might “tarnish the nation’s image.”

mark.magnier@latimes.com


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