x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Myanmar junta gains little from rigged poll

The elections dress up the dictatorship in a gauze of legitimacy which may be more important to Myanmar's business partners than its citizens.

How do you fix an election without getting caught? Myanmar's generals didn't seem particularly bothered by that question yesterday as the country went to the polls for the first time in 20 years.

Results may have been decided before the voting began, with 25 per cent of parliamentary seats reserved for the military and early voting favouring the junta's Union Solidarity and Development Party. Soldiers and civil bureaucrats were also strongly "encouraged" to cast their votes in a certain direction.

So what was the point? While Myanmar is often singled out as the pariah of South East Asia, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are hardly paragons of democracy and human rights. Why, then, did the ageing and repressive dictatorship of the generals decide to hold an election?

They were forced to. The government of General Than Shwe and his ruling clique is almost entirely bankrupt of legitimacy. The bloody crackdown on the "Saffron Revolution", when Buddhist monks demonstrated in the streets three years ago, showed the desperation of a regime in a deeply religious country. Many ethnic minority groups field their own autonomous armies, some in open rebellion.

For the time being, the elections dress up the dictatorship in a gauze of legitimacy. That may be more important to Myanmar's business partners than its citizens however; China, India and Thailand have invested heavily in energy, infrastructure and natural resources, investments for which all three have been criticised.

At home, however, it will be the junta's iron hand that will remain the guarantor of stability. From the early reports leaking out of the country yesterday - many foreign journalists had to sneak into Myanmar because of a media ban - there was an atmosphere of fear on the streets of Yangon. One man, 60-year-old Tin Aung, said he had voted for the opposition in the election in 1990. "This is my second time to vote," he told the Associated Press. "I am really scared."

After the elections 20 years ago, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won by a landslide - a result that was swept aside by the junta. In a fair election, Ms Suu Kyi would almost certainly win again, although she is under house arrest and boycotted this poll.

Everyone expected these elections to be rigged and nobody will be fooled. Myanmar's junta may have learnt to hijack the ballot box, but they still do not know how to rule a stable country.