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Politics

High hopes for fair poll despite party purge

Medics wear black ribbons at Taunggyi hospital.   © Simon Roughneen

TAUNGGYI, Myanmar -- When Myanmar's government on Aug. 10 issued a directive for a handful of military medical personnel to be posted to the country's public hospitals, civilian medics were quick to react.

     Within three days, a Facebook page full of photos of doctors and nurses in hospitals across Myanmar -- all with black ribbons fastened to their white coats to protest the move -- had gained over 40,000 followers.

     "Most of the serving doctors and staff here are wearing the black ribbons," said Htar Htar Nyein, a surgeon at the main hospital, a five-minute walk from the military's eastern command here in the Shan state capital.

     Issued three months ahead of what is being billed as Myanmar's first free and fair elections in 25 years, the surprise directive was a reminder of the military-dominated past.

     Since 2011, Myanmar's government has not been automatically crushing dissent, unlike those that followed Gen. Ne Win's coup of 1962. Remarkably, the black ribbon campaign worked, and the government stopped the transfers.

     The publicity around the campaign soon faded, however, as another potent reminder of the continued influence of Myanmar's security forces played out in the capital, Naypyidaw.

     Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament and previous leader of the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, on Aug. 12 was removed as party chief in a nighttime purge supported by security forces.

     That event, described as an "internal coup" within the ruling party, prompted concerns about whether the military would respect any election result that goes against the status quo.

     More than four years after formally ceding control to a civilian government, the military still retains 25% of the seats in Myanmar's parliament and can block constitutional changes.

     The worry is that there could be a recurrence of the events of 1990, when the junta annulled the National League for Democracy's landslide election victory and refused to allow the party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, to take office.

     "There is some concern that there might be a 1990 repeat," said Han Tha Myint, now a member of the NLD central executive committee and a parliamentarian, "but it is hypothetical to discuss it at this point."

     Nay Phone Latt, a former political prisoner and free speech advocate, believes the military recognizes Myanmar is too far down the path of political reform and will respect the election result.

     "It is not so easy to do like in 1990, the situation is totally changed," said Nay Phone Latt, who is running in the election as an NLD candidate.

     But Zaw Ye Win -- who spent 13 years in jail for political dissent and now runs a mechanic-training business in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital -- is anxious.

Zaw Ye Min, left, teaches at his mechanic-training business in Yangon.   © Simon Roughneen

     He said the ruthlessness of Shwe Mann's ouster from party leadership has made him think twice about an election he had previously thought would be free and fair.

     "Now we are worried ... that the ruling party problem will affect the election," Zaw Ye Win said.

     Sai Maung Maung Win, who owns a travel company in Taunggyi, said Shwe Mann's ouster will further erode the USDP's appeal in an election in which it is expected to struggle against the NLD.

     "They show their bad habit, like the military government," Sai Maung Maung Win said. "They will lose a fair election."

     The NLD, however, might not win as decisively as it did in 1990 -- or as it did in 2012 by-elections, when it took all but one of the 44 seats contested.

     A majority of Taunggyi residents interviewed by the Nikkei Asian Review said they will vote for Shan parties, reinforcing survey findings that suggest the NLD might not perform as well in ethnic areas as elsewhere, taking perhaps only a fifth of the votes in Myanmar's seven ethnic-dominated states.

     Such an outcome could deny the NLD a landslide and force it to compromise with some of the almost 100 other parties contesting the election.

     Khin Maung Swe, a former NLD member who broke away to set up the National Democratic Force, which won 16 seats in the 2010 elections and will field 275 candidates in November, believes that "this time there will probably not be one dominant party."

     "Whoever is the main party will have to consider the military view," he said.

     Ahead of the two-month campaign period, which kicks off in the middle of this month, there are also concerns about religious tensions and ongoing civil conflict -- even as the government and up to 21 ethnic armed groups try to thrash out a national ceasefire.

     In the country's west, minority Rohingya Muslims were allowed to vote in 2010, despite being refused citizenship by the government and denied recognition as an ethnic group. Most Rohingyas are now disenfranchised, after extreme pressure from influential extremist Buddhist monks such as U Wirathu. In addition, sitting Rohingya parliamentarians have now been barred from re-contesting their seats.

     Over the past four years, Wirathu and fellow monk rabble-rousers have fired up Buddhist mobs with anti-Muslim rhetoric, leading to several episodes of deadly violence.

     Wirathu and like-minded monks have been undermining efforts by counterparts who strive for peace. Withutha, a monk in Meikhtila, in March 2013 sheltered 800 Muslims at his monastery as Buddhist mobs hacked and burned Muslims.

     In another contrast with Wirathu, who has said a Suu Kyi presidency would lead to "chaos," Withutha said he supports the NLD "because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is good for the people."

     But the NLD has drawn criticism over the selection process for its 1,090 candidates. Leading members of the 88 Generation group of former student protestors, such as Ko Ko Gyi, were among those spurned by Suu Kyi, prompting concerns that the old anti-military alliances have splintered.

     The "NLD and 88 Generation should join, but they are apart," said Robert San Aung, a lawyer who represents jailed protesters and activists.

     San Aung fears Suu Kyi is erring by backing Shwe Mann, overestimating the parliament speaker's self-professed reformist aims.  San Aung also believes Suu Kyi's endorsement could anger NLD supporters who remember Shwe Mann's senior position in the previous military junta. "I don't think she fully knows about the dangerous, cheating regime," San Aung said.

     But for Nay Phone Latt, there are more immediate concerns about a fair election that outweigh worries about the NLD's choice of allies.

     "There are other problems to address, such as the voter list," he said. "We have to persuade people to check voter lists and help make sure it is a free and fair election."

     Myanmar's election commission has drawn scorn in recent months for sending out inaccurate preliminary voter lists. The Carter Center, one of several groups monitoring the elections, said in an Aug. 19 report that in rural areas there is "very little knowledge, and minimal information available, about the electoral process."

     Zaw Htay, director of the office of the president, acknowledged that voting would will not take place in some areas, such as the Kokang region, where fighting broke out in February between local militias and the Myanmar army.

     Nonetheless, Zaw Htay said, the vote will be above board and the results will be respected. "The president and the commander-in-chief of the army," he noted, "have already said that the election will be free and fair."

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