Fri 30 Apr 2010
Filed under: Inside Burma
Top Myanmar officials resigned from their military posts this week and created their own political party in a likely bid to contest upcoming elections later this year, raising new skepticism about the prospects for a valid vote.
Analysts said the move by Prime Minister Thein Sein and 22 other officials to resign their military titles appears designed to circumvent a 25% quota on the number of parliamentary seats members of the military will hold, enabling them to maintain their grip on power in this resource-rich but secretive nation of 48 million people. If more senior military leaders shed their uniforms to run as civilians, they could lock up far more seats.
The demilitarization of Myanmar’s top leadership merely represents “a more sophisticated form of oppression,” says David Mathieson, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Thailand. The Myanmar regime in recent years has been accused of a wide range of human rights abuses, including the imprisonment of more than 2,000 political opponents.
Attempts to reach the Myanmar government, which rarely speaks to foreign journalists, were unsuccessful. The country’s senior-most military leader, Than Shwe, has in the past said the vote will be fair.
The Myanmar government has yet to announce a date for the elections.
Mr. Thein Sein and the other officers resigned from the military on Monday, according to state media reports, though they are expected to keep their cabinet posts. On Thursday, he and 26 other officials applied to register a political group called the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
When Myanmar last held a national election, in 1990, opposition groups led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi easily won. But the military regime, which has ruled since 1962, ignored the result and has kept Ms. Suu Kyi under house arrest much of the time since then. Her party, the National League for Democracy, recently vowed to boycott the newest vote.
Some analysts have argued the new election—which they say was designed at least in part to boost the legitimacy of the current regime—could at least open the door for opposition groups to gain a bit more say in the way Myanmar is run. More than 20 new political parties have applied to participate, including some led by opposition figures, and it is widely hoped that at least some of them could win seats in the new government. Myanmar would have 440 parliamentary seats in the new parliament.
Analysts speculate that the regime’s efforts to promote the creation of civilian parties could lead to more accountability among top military leaders, some of whom will theoretically have to compete for public favor in order to remain in office. But it’s unclear if the government will allow international observers to ensure the voting is free and fair, and the latest moves suggest some current leaders may not intend to retire and hand over the reins to younger leaders as some residents had hoped.
Tensions are clearly rising in the country. At least seven bomb blasts have been reported in recent weeks, including an attack at a public park in Yangon on April 15 that killed eight or more people. It is unknown who orchestrated the latest attacks—which have also included smaller blasts at a hydropower project site—or whether they are related.
Anxieties are also running high in border areas with Thailand and China, where ethnic minority groups control vast swathes of territory and continue to grapple with the government over a controversial plan to reduce their autonomy before the elections.
Military leaders are demanding that the ethnic groups convert their soldiers into “border guards” under the leadership of the Myanmar army before participating in the vote. A deadline for acceptance of the deal passed on Wednesday, with many still refusing to participate. That has left many Myanmar residents to conclude violent conflicts are imminent as the government positions more troops in border areas.