Junta tries to score political points

Asia Times Online
By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK - As election fever grips Myanmar, the ruling junta is busy preparing a series of steps, including an amnesty of political prisoners, to try to make the vote more credible in the international community.

This has become a priority after the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD), led by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, decided to boycott the vote, whose date has yet to be announced.

The junta plans a mass amnesty of political prisoners, including high-profile activists, according to a senior military source. "Everything is set to take off after Thingyan [Buddhist new year in mid-April]," said a senior Myanmar government official.

A military caretaker government will be announced in early May to run the country until the poll and hand over power to the newly elected civilian government, he said. Then, the pro-junta political party will be formed after the New Year. This will be followed by the release of hundreds of political activists, he added.

But many in Myanmar's commercial center Yangon remain skeptical. "Why should we care, nothing will change," said an elderly taxi driver, Min Thu. "Burma [Myanmar] is unique," said 28-year-old teacher Maung Maung Thein. "We'll have a president, but a president with no power," he laughed.

There will only be 17 ministers in the caretaker military government, said Myanmar military sources. Some incumbent ministers may stay in place, but most will retire or enter politics.

The current prime minister, who is expected to retire, recently told confidantes that he has to move out of his government residence in the capital Naypyidaw, by the start of Thingyan festivities.

At least a dozen ministers, including Information Minister General Kyaw Hsan, Interior Minister General Maung Oo and Agriculture Minister General Htay Oo, are expected to resign to take up a political career. The fifth top general and head of military intelligence, General Myint Swe, is said to be destined to become prime minister in the interim administration.

"Many major generals and colonels have been brought to the capital for training in the past month," Burmese academic Win Min, based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, told Inter Press Service (IPS). "Some will take over the ministries in the interim cabinet and others will become politicians."

Twenty-five percent of the seats in the new bicameral parliament are reserved for serving soldiers, so some 200 officers will become national parliamentarians. There are also 14 regional parliaments, all with military men turned politicians.

More than 1,000 soldiers are enrolled in a school run by army chief General Thura Shwe Man. "They are being taught parliamentary procedures and civilian matters in readiness for their new role as politicians," said Win Min.

But most are unhappy to be seconded from the army, said a researcher who has interviewed several retired officers. After five years - the duration of the parliamentary term - these soldiers would expect to return to the ranks, but fear they will have missed out on several promotions as a result.

"I did not do my officer training to enter politics," said one colonel confidentially. "I studied so I could become a general some day."

Several parties, including the Democrat Party and the National Union Party, have submitted registration papers to the Electoral Commission.

Though the main pro-junta party is yet to be formed, the pro-government Union Solidarity and Development Organization is expected to be the military's main vehicle in the election.

Its leader, the agriculture minister and confidante of senior general Than Shwe, has repeatedly told visiting diplomats that he would become a politician soon. He is tipped to become the new prime minister in the "civilianized" government after the poll.

While the NLD's absence makes the election process neither credible nor inclusive to many critics, it is what Than Shwe wanted all along.

In late March, the NLD - which won the 1990 poll but was never allowed to form a government - decided against registering because doing so under the election law would mean ditching Suu Kyi. The law bars anyone serving a prison sentence - Suu Kyi is serving a sentence under house arrest - from being a member of a political party.

She has spent more than 14 of the past 21 years in detention, and was also prevented from contesting the 1990 vote because she was under house arrest.

"The main aim of the junta's election laws is clearly to emasculate the NLD and prevent their leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from taking any part in the forthcoming electoral process," said Justin Wintle, the British biographer of the pro-democracy icon.

"The laws put the opposition in a very difficult position," said Scot Marciel, the United States ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Than Shwe hopes to maintain the advantage by releasing political prisoners in May. A list of names has been submitted to him, say sources in the capital, Naypyidaw.

While some NLD activists are in the list, the vast majority are ethnic rebels, those active in the 1988 democracy movement and former military intelligence officers. The renowned comedian Zarganar is almost certain to be among them. There will be key ethnic leaders too, possibly even the Shan leader Khun Htun Oo.

Than Shwe hopes that some of them will run in the election so that it looks more inclusive. But as a Burmese political analyst told IPS, the Burmese are not that gullible. "The people will punish the government," he said on condition of anonymity. "The payback will come at the election."

(Inter Press Service)

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