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Burma election: Are activists the new Third Force in politics?

The Burma election this year is widely expected to reinforce the junta’s power. But some nonprofits support the vote, and dozens of political parties are taking part, in hopes of chipping away at military rule.

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A similar debate on how to tackle Burma has played out in international politics. The Obama administration has sought to engage Burma’s rulers, with little visible success. Its demands for the release of Ms. Suu Kyi and other political prisoners have been ignored. The US and other Western powers have imposed economic sanctions on Burma, but its neighbors, led by Thailand and China, have stepped up trade and investment.

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Western diplomats admit that sanctions haven’t undermined the regime. They say that an election and handover to civilian rule, however circumscribed, could trigger a review. But much will depend on the treatment of Suu Kyi, whose current sentence ends in February 2011 and who remains an international icon, though her political party recently split over whether to participate in elections. A breakaway group has registered as a new party.

Phyo Min Thein, a student union leader, was imprisoned for 14 years for subversion. He leads the Union Democratic Party, which aims to contest at least half the national seats in parliament. He criticizes what he calls unfair advantages given to the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is favored to beat out the 42 other parties that have registered so far. Among its advantages, USDP has spent years building a mass membership while other parties were not yet allowed to organize, and its logo is used on government projects. Yet Phyo Min Thein is determined to compete in the elections and use the parliament to push an opposition platform.

Western sanctions haven’t worked, he agrees. But to end them now would be premature. “If the government holds free and fair elections and convenes parliament, then sanctions should be lifted. But this government always breaks its promises,” he says.

Among ordinary Burmese, the upcoming elections evoke reactions of skepticism, apathy, and apprehension. Some shrug off the notion that anything will change at the ballot box. Others say it’s too dangerous to talk politics.

A small-business man who bemoans the regime’s mishandling of the economy says any change would be beneficial, as long as it eases the military out of policymaking. A slow, painful transition to civilian control is the only way for the country to progress, he argues. For that reason, he has no appetite for an opposition victory at the polls, as in 1990. That result was later annulled by the junta, paralyzing the political process for a generation.

“We must give [the military] a proper exit,” he says. “If we don’t, they will fight back like a cornered dog.”

Editor's note: Reporter's name withheld for security reasons.

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