THE junta ruling Myanmar has had 20 years to digest the lessons from the country’s most recent election. It was trounced by the National League for Democracy, even though the opposition’s charismatic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was already under house arrest. This year on an unnamed date (perhaps its astrologers cannot agree) the junta will hold another election. It will not lose this one.
Election laws published this week do not quite spell out the result. But a “political-parties registration law” bars Miss Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, of whom there are more than 2,000, from belonging to a party because of their criminal convictions. Cut off from politics by her house arrest, Miss Suu Kyi is anyway barred from office as the widow of a foreigner. Her party now has to expel her and other detainees. The law also bans civil servants from joining parties, along with monks, who led anti-government protests in 2007.
The dilemma the opposition faces has become sharper. It has long had to worry about whether to add legitimacy to a sham electoral process by taking part, or risk further marginalisation by boycotting it. Now the League has been allowed to reopen branch offices closed since 2003. But it has 60 days to decide, in effect, between taking part in the election and abolition as a legal party. In 1995 it pulled out of a farcical “national convention” drafting a new constitution. The constitution that emerged in 2008 duly enshrines the role of the army. This time the League may feel compelled to take part, but find that just as ineffectual.
The election, nonetheless, does come at a time of some sort of change, if only generational. Than Shwe, the “senior general” (pictured), is 77. He and his comrades are preparing to pass on the baton. Western diplomats hope that, having cut their teeth fighting a Chinese-backed communist insurgency, they are uneasy with Myanmar’s isolation from the West and loth to bequeath their successors a regime so reliant on China. The election, one stop on a “road map” to democracy, in this analysis, is one way of opening up.
In another change the junta has started a remarkable if stealthy process of selling state assets: ports, buildings in Yangon vacated by its shift of capital in 2005, petrol stations, telecoms firms and a share in the national airline. This is hardly a gesture to economic reform—the sales are cooked-up deals benefiting junta cronies. But nor does it seem just the desperation of a cash-strapped regime. Rather, in the analysis of Yeni, of the Irrawaddy, a magazine published by émigrés in Thailand, it is the “formal transfer of the nation’s wealth into the hands of an entrenched elite”, ahead of an election and the implementation of a new constitution which, in theory, should allow greater competition for assets. This elite is “pre-emptively buying up everything in sight”. It has a similar attitude to competition of the democratic kind.