Despite scepticism, young people in Mayanmar hope next year's vote will give them an opportunity to determine their future.
Frustrated citizens count on election
YANGON // In a provincial town in north-eastern Myanmar, a bespectacled science graduate in his mid-twenties spoke woefully about the state of his homeland and looked poised to burst into tears at any moment. Although he studied hard for his degree, grim job prospects under a military junta that has governed since 1962 means he must toil on construction sites for US$40 (Dh147) a month. Punitive taxes render him unable to leave his parents' home. "I and all my friends graduated from university, but there are no jobs - and that is why I don't like this government," said the physics buff, whose name cannot be published for fear of reprisals. "Taxes are heavy and, if you talk, you go to jail." The apparent hopelessness of his situation has left this overqualified graduate hoping for the most extreme of outcomes from next year's planned elections - the first to be staged since the military was defeated by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in a 1990 election that was later annulled. The man, a resident of Shan state, said he hoped the ballot would spur a nationwide protest and return to widespread armed conflict between the Myanmarese army and the militias of the many non-Myanmarese ethnic groups that make up about one-third of Myanmar's 50 million people. "I hope that the elections will fail and the fighting will start again to overthrow the government," he said. His bleak prognosis looked evermore probable last week as fighters from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army - which fights for the Kokang minority - clashed with the government military, or Tatmadaw, forcing more than 30,000 residents of Myanmar's border region to flee into China. Some of Myanmar's ethnic militias agreed to a ceasefire with the government in 1989, but fighting has taken place this summer between the 350,000-strong national army and guerrilla forces from such ethnic groups as the Karen and the Kokang. "The fighting is localised, but the hundreds of thousands of villagers caught in the conflict zones are among the most at-risk populations in the world," said a programme director for a non-governmental organisation in Myanmar. "They face mortar attacks, being caught up in combat as well as torture, rape and starvation." Rebel leaders threaten to unearth buried arsenals and recommence fighting if the junta does not fulfil its pledge of free and fair elections, said the director. "It is a high-stakes game." Many citizens have little faith in the elections, believing they will only serve to consolidate the junta's grip on power and provide a convenient answer to silence pro-democracy activists in the West. "The elections are just for show," said a student in downtown Yangon, the bustling centre of the country's biggest city and its former capital. "The generals think they will make them look good in the eyes of the world." Despite such cynicism, the ballot presents a tantalising opportunity to young people who have never before voted in their lives. "It will be the first time I have ever voted - and I really hope my vote will count," said a businessman in Mandalay, the country's second-biggest city. "But I don't know what will happen. I have been waiting 20 years for development here and, to tell you the truth, I have lost faith in my country." A natural bounty of hydrocarbons, timber and jade has done little to raise the standard of living for ordinary people. Villagers now complain of communities being bulldozed to make way for lucrative agribusiness deals with China, the NGO director said. Under Myanmar's provisional voting rules, one-quarter of the elected chamber will be made up of military men and an equal proportion will have been nominated by the junta. Such pressure groups as Human Rights Watch say the junta has crooked the rules so that it has won the election even before ballots are cast. It remains unclear whether the NLD, which continues to claim that it is the rightful government of the country after its 1990 victory, will field candidates next year. "The election law has not been published yet, so the NLD is waiting for that before deciding whether to take part," said Zin Linn, an NLD member in exile in Thailand. The NLD's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was effectively sidelined last month when she was sentenced to 18 months confinement at home. It was alleged that she had broken the terms of her house arrest by allowing a US citizen in to her lakeside home. "This trial was a farce, a brutal distortion of the legal process," said Brad Adams, the regional director for Human Rights Watch. "By silencing prominent opponents through bogus trials, the generals are clearly showing why the elections they have been touting for next year won't bring change." Analysts both inside and outside the country say the elections are unlikely to effect real reform in Myanmar, but some hope that a controlled democratic exercise will boost activity in the country's burgeoning civil society. "The campaign period is an important opportunity to raise issues with the public about what they are entitled to and what people in other countries get that the Burmese don't," said Christina Fink, the author of Living Silence, a book about Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. "Maybe this will stir things up. Anyone who wants democracy in Myanmar should be involved to see if there is space there that they can use." Myanmar is witnessing a growth in activity of non-governmental actors involved in everything from assisting the country's estimated 240,000 HIV/Aids sufferers to managing local resources and arranging funerals for poor families. Analysts said this trend accelerated in 2007 when students joined orange-robed Buddhist monks to protest against the government in the so-called Saffron Revolution, and was galvanised when groups co-operated to help victims of Cyclone Nargis in May last year. "Holding elections is better than nothing at all," said the NGO leader. "There's movement here and it is not being reported. The Saffron Revolution was shocking to people here because it showed that the military was prepared to shoot monks on the street. "Nargis then crystallised this sense that the regime could not be counted on to act in its people's interests and prompted them to take matters into their own hands. They got together and took whatever they could to the disaster area, driving through military checkpoints to do so. That was hugely significant. "Now, for example, forest communities are demanding a say in how the forests are managed and are being given that opportunity. That's a change." The director of an NGO that assists poor families in Yangon, however, said Myanmar's emerging civil society groups insisted they were humanitarian, rather than political, for fear of ruffling the junta's feathers. "The government is jealous of us," the charity's director said. "They think we are political minded and are running NGOs for political reasons. They worry that the success of our organisations means we will gain influence among the people - but we are not political at all." U Maung Maung, the secretary general of the National Council of the Union of Burma, an alliance of ethnic minority groups, monks and pro-democracy parties based in Thailand that advocates for democratic reform, said Myanmar's generals were concerned about the mounting pressure on their system. "Look at the ceasefires with all the ethnic groups over the last 20 years," Mr Maung said. "But the fighting continues. These things are happening. There are cracks within the military system. You can never say the military is a monolith and has the monopoly on everything." The Myanmar regime says rebel groups are holding back what it describes as the "democratisation process and the people's ultimate goal". "It is easily comprehensible that democratic reform cannot be introduced if terrorist acts and riots are rife across the nation," read a recent editorial in The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, the junta's official English-language mouthpiece. Yet for many among Myanmar's impoverished population, renewed strife heralds an ever harder battle for survival rather than an opportunity to exploit a chink in the junta's armour. "People are living hand to mouth and have no time to think about politics because they are so worried about fulfilling their daily needs," said a father of two in Shan state. Regardless of what happens in the elections, the junta will not rule Myanmar forever, he said. "This country is like a bomb with a lit fuse," he said. "But no one knows how long that fuse is." firstname.lastname@example.org