As Myanmar prepares for elections, its critics fret

NPR – Real | Windows | MP3

Some foreign governments have dismissed Myanmar's first elections in two decades as a sham, intended to consolidate a military dictatorship in the country also known as Burma.

But other countries are regarding Sunday's election as a sign of progress and a reason to engage the Burmese government.

The elections are being watched and discussed with apprehension in Mae La, in western Thailand, the largest of nine camps housing 150,000 Burmese refugees on the Thai side of the border. The rainy season there has swollen the streams and muddied the paths winding through Mae La.

In the camp, Naw Ko Wai tends to her four children in a house with a floor of bamboo slats under a roof of leaves.

"I came here because government troops near my village forced us to work for them and demanded rice and money, which we had to give them every month," she recounts. "The Karen National Liberation Army and government troops often ambushed each other in the forest."

Ko Wai says that government soldiers shot and killed her cousin, whom they thought was an insurgent. One night three years ago, Ko Wai and her family slipped into the jungle and fled for five weeks before reaching Thailand.

Refugees were alarmed earlier this month when Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said in New York that his government was preparing to send the refugees back to Myanmar.

"One of the first things I will be doing is to launch a more comprehensive program for the Myanmar people in the camps, the displaced persons, to prepare them to return to Myanmar after the elections," he pledged.

Piromya personally paid a visit to Mae La last month to clarify that repatriation of the refugees was a long-term goal, not an immediate task, and that Bangkok would not send any refugees back unless the country was politically stable and the returnees would be safe.

Path To Greater Engagement?

Sally Thompson, vice director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, which helps the refugees, says that the Burmese government seeks to regain the legitimacy it lost when it clung to power after losing the last elections two decades ago.

"Therefore, technically, it was not the legitimate ruling body," she says. But optimistic observers, she continues, hope that "these elections will legitimize them, and therefore for some governments it will say, well, now we go ahead and we engage."

Thailand and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as China, all emphasize diplomatic engagement and economic ties with Burma.

Western Thailand and other parts of the country absorb a lot of cheap labor from Myanmar, while China seeks raw materials and strategic access to Indian Ocean sea lanes.

Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, a magazine based in Chiang-Mai, Thailand, that focuses on Myanmar, says Western governments are frustrated that their efforts to promote democracy in Myanmar have achieved little.

"The West also started to feel that they've been losing because Burma is much deeper into China's pocket, and ASEAN continues to engage," he says. "So, seems to me everyone seems to be suffering from 'Burma fatigue.' That's why they seem to support the only game in town."

In 2003, the Burmese government outlined a "road map to democracy," in which voters will elect a parliament, which will in turn choose civilian national leaders. The military will automatically get 25 percent of the seats in parliament, but observers expect them to take the lion's share of the positions.

Skepticism Over Outcome Strong

Saw David Tharkapaw is vice chairman of the Karen National Union, one of several ethnic groups that have kept up an armed resistance against Myanmar's rulers for more than half a century. He sees little room for optimism about the election.

"The road map is designed to perpetuate the oppressive military rule," he says. "So we are not participating in the election. We will prove that this election is a farce, this election is rigged, and it will bring no peace and stability in the country."

Myanmar's leaders may appear to have the election locked up. But some analysts believe that jockeying for power within the military could get messy.

Toe Zaw Latt, the Thailand bureau chief for the Democratic Voice of Burma, a nonprofit, pro-democracy media organization based in Oslo, Norway, notes that the regime in Myanmar has successfully eliminated the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which won the 1990 election.

The government disbanded the party after it announced it would boycott the election. But Suu Kyi will be released from house arrest after the election, Zaw Latt says, and she's unlikely to stay silent.

"They can marginalize her in party politics, but her role is somewhat above politics, more as a symbolic leader," he says. "People of different ethnic groups trust her. You can't underestimate her influence on ordinary Burmese citizens."

At the Mae La camp, some refugees worry that once the election is over, the Burmese army will launch a major offensive against the armed ethnic groups, in a bid to end the civil war once and for all. That could flood the camps with more refugees.

Saw Collin has lived in Mae La for 26 years. He says that the refugees are in limbo, unable to return to Myanmar, or to settle in Thailand.

"I feel very frustrated, because we cannot go freely," he laments. "We are like a bird in a cage. Many of the people in the camp, they do not know what they are waiting for."