- By Sylvie SteinSylvie Stein is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
What do you call a political rally where citizens-turned-automatons stand silent and unmoving without signs, literature, or adornment of any kind? No real political rally at all — or, permissible dissent in Burma.
The iron-fisted Burmese junta — led by military general Than Shwe — has repeatedly framed this year’s upcoming elections as fair and democratic, dismissing the critics who claim it is merely a design to cement five decades of uninterrupted military rule. But the despotic regime’s recent ban on essentially any public, recognizable political expression — on marching, chanting, making speeches, brandishing flags, distributing publications, or making disturbances near any offices, factories, markets, schools, hospitals, and religious meetings (read: anywhere on solid ground) — likely won’t win over any disbelievers.
Today the ruling junta published a 14-point directive in state-run newspapers to explain what constitutes a recognized party and exactly what that party can — or much more thoroughly, can not — do. To attain party status, a group must be registered by the (state-run) Election Commission and then amass a minimum of 1,000 members in the three following months. To hold a rally, the party must be approved and then must obtain permission to hold the rally from that same committee. It is worth noting first that the majority of the 38 currently registered groups (a mere sixth of the number registered in the most recent election … back in 1990) support the ruling party; second, that campaigning comes with its own laundry list of restrictions; and third, that any participants in a political rally must adhere to the aforementioned restrictions or face a crackdown from local authorities. The end result? Any political body espousing real opposition is unlikely to materialize, and any political rally is whittled down to what most closely resembles a silent rave — minus the headphones and the fun.
The other conditions of the elections only make prospects grimmer: No election date has been specified, over 2,000 "political prisoners" are barred from the voting booths, and what is arguably the only party capable of posing a real challenge to the junta, the National League for Democracy, is effectively defunct. The party’s leader and rightful winner of the last Burmese elections, Aung San Suu Kyi, is most likely skeptical as she awaits the arrival of this elusive election — all from the decrepit lake house where she remains under a 20-year-long house arrest.