Myanmar opposition in disarray as polls approach

by Aung Hla Tun, Reuters

Posted at Aug 26 2010 05:19 PM | Updated as of Aug 27 2010 01:19 AM

YANGON, Myanmar - Boycotts, draconian election laws and resignations of opposition figures have put Myanmar's ruling generals within easy grasp to sweep the first polls in two decades, just two weeks after setting an election date.

Myanmar's politically marginalised opposition appears in total disarray in the run up to the much-criticised Nov. 7 polls, experts say, playing into the hands of a military regime with no intention to give up its 48-year grip on power.

The leader of the National Democratic Force (NDF) party, Khin Muang Swe, said late on Thursday he would not run for a parliamentary seat, while influential Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday called on members of her now-defunct National League for Democracy (NLD) party to abstain from voting.

The moves, whether tactical or retaliatory, come as parties grapple with huge registration fees, strict campaign rules, intimidation by military agents and barely any time to recruit enough members to contest the election.

According to rules announced last week, campaign gatherings and publications will require official approval, criticism of the military is outlawed and election authorities are empowered to ban acts of "holding flags and chanting slogans" [ID:nSGE67I0DM].

"This is just what the regime wants and has planned all along," said Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese academic based in neighbouring Thailand.

"(Junta leader) Than Shwe's only political strategy is divide and rule and a weakened opposition is just what he needs."

Most analysts and opposition parties say the military has formed its own proxy party that is sure to win most seats in a parliament packed with army appointees, because of its big budget and sheer size and span of its representation.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is comprised of incumbent army-picked ministers recently retired from the military and critics say it enjoys the backing of the powerful business elite.

Opposition at odds

Even if unpopular with mainstream Myanmar people, who voted overwhelmingly in favour of Suu Kyi's NLD in the annulled 1990 poll, an overall USDP victory appears almost guaranteed against an under-funded opposition unable to campaign freely or come up with enough money to field candidates in all constituencies.

Moreover, analysts say, the opposition appears to be struggling to forge a common stance unlike the last polls.

The Union Democratic Party (UDP) last week said it would boycott the election if it believed it would not be free and fair. Its leader, Phyo Min Thein, seen as one of the biggest hopes for democracy, quit on Aug 15 and said fair polls were impossible.

Thu Wai, chairman of Democratic Party (Myanmar) and a former political prisoner, disagrees and says a boycott would play into the hands of the military junta and give it legitimacy.

Election laws were so tight, he added, the junta-backed USDP did not need to cheat to win.

"These parties are divided over what's the lesser evil," said Christopher Roberts, a Myanmar expert at the University of Canberra.

"Do they enter a less-than-perfect process that's better than nothing or take a principled stance and boycott to push for a better model of democracy? Either way, it doesn't look like the generals and their proxies will face much of a challenge."

Writing and additional reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Jason Szep