Burma says Aung San Suu Kyi can vote. But will house arrest continue?

Aung San Suu Kyi's 18-month detention ends just after the Burma election. Observers say her release would signal the junta’s confidence in transitioning to a semi-civilian government.

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    Members of the Free Burma Coalition Philippines hold posters and a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi as they clench their fists and shout slogans during a protest in front of the Myanmar embassy in Makati's financial district of Manila, on Sept. 24.
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Military-ruled Burma (Myanmar) has said the country’s most famous dissident will be allowed to vote in November elections, the first since an annulled 1990 ballot.

But Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the subsequent years in detention, will not be allowed out of house arrest to cast her ballot, to the dismay of her supporters and Western governments that have pressed for her release.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s name is on an electoral roll in Rangoon, where she is confined to her lakeside house. An election official last week told the popular Myanmar Times that she could cast an advance postal vote (see report).

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Given that Suu Kyi’s popular National League for Democracy, which won the 1990 vote, is boycotting the election, the move appears to be a token gesture. The United States government dismissed the news and repeated its longstanding call for the release of all political prisoners in Burma.

"We don’t believe those elections can be free or fair, and we continue to urge the Burmese authorities to begin a genuine political dialogue with the democratic opposition," US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said during a press briefing Sept. 24.

One among 2,100 political prisoners

A larger question hangs over the status of Suu Kyi in mid-November when her current 18-month detention period ends. Some observers predict that she could be released after the Nov. 7 election, in part as a sop to US diplomatic efforts to engage Burma. By this way of thinking, her release would signal the junta’s confidence over a transition to a new, semi-civilian government.

It’s unclear whether Suu Kyi would accept restrictions on her release, such as a travel ban. In the past, she has said that all of Burma’s estimated 2,100 political prisoners should be released at the same time.

Her release would be a relief for US allies in Asia that have joined calls for Suu Kyi’s freedom while trying to work quietly with Burma to ease its isolation. Many diplomats in the region argue that Western pressure and economic sanctions have been largely counterproductive.

Ally China values stability

Of far greater concern to China, say analysts, is how Burma handles tensions along their shared border where ethnic rebel groups are on alert. Burma’s junta has sought to put these groups under its military command, but most have refused. Last August, Burmese troops overran one rebel-held area, forcing thousands of refugees to flee into China and raising hackles in Beijing, a key ally for Burma.

“While the West would like Myanmar's elections to lead to democracy, China would regard success as being defined as stability. A good transition is one that doesn’t rock the boat,” says Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia director in Jakarta for the International Crisis Group.

Earlier this month, Burmese state media announced that balloting would not take place in about 300 communities in rebel-run areas. Some ethnic leaders in these areas had already opposed the poll as illegitimate. But others had sought to field candidates and were blocked from registration.

Analysts say the mass disenfranchisement of these voters would hobble regional parliaments and could lead to post-election violence if the military seeks to impose its writ.

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