Page last updated at 16:51 GMT, Thursday, 4 November 2010

How democratic will Burma's election be?

Watch Sue LLoyd-Roberts' undercover report from Burma in full

By Sue Lloyd-Roberts
BBC Newsnight, Burma

The people of Burma go to the polls this weekend for the first time in 20 years.

In 1990, an overwhelming majority voted for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). The generals ignored the result and have imposed strict military rule ever since.

Union Solidarity and Development Party: Junta-linked party contesting all seats - about 1,160
National Unity Party: Junta-linked party contesting 999 seats
National Democratic Force: Pro-democracy party contesting 163 seats
Shan Nationalities Democratic Party: Largest of the ethnic parties, contesting 157 seats

Three years ago crowds led by monks came out on to the streets to protest against arbitrary price rises and ongoing military rule, but this so-called Saffron Revolution was put down brutally by the army.

So why are the generals holding elections and what do they hope to achieve?

Journalists are not being allowed into Burma to cover the elections but I entered the country illegally as a tourist and did my best to find out.

Diplomats and Burma-watchers say that the generals are trying to get their critics off their backs.

Historically, the junta has shown indifference to complaints about their behaviour by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union.

But now the complaints are coming from closer to home, from allies and trading partners in the regional grouping Asean - more so in the wake of the 2007 protests.

Veto power

The generals reluctantly agreed a roadmap towards what they call a "disciplined democracy". A new constitution was passed in 2008 to pave the way for elections junta-style.

General Than Shwe
General Than Shwe has been under pressure from Asean allies

The constitution reserves more than 100 seats for the army in the 450-seat lower parliament.

Dozens of senior officers have recently "retired" to stand for the government-approved Union Solidarity and Development Party - by far the strongest party.

The combined force of these two groups will likely mean that they have an effective veto over legislation.

It is because of the constitution that Ms Suu Kyi's party, the NLD, is calling for an election boycott.

She is still under house arrest, but I met her spokesman U Win Tin, who was himself only recently released from a 19-year prison sentence, and he explained the boycott call.

"This election is like a feast which is poisoned, we cannot join the feast because poisoned fruits are served. It is just to prolong military rule. Only by boycotting the elections can we put pressure on the military rulers."

Boycott call

But not all members of the opposition agree. One afternoon in Rangoon, I found myself taking afternoon tea in an elegant drawing room with three ladies in their 60s, all contemporaries of Ms Suu Kyi. They are all standing as candidates in these elections for the Democratic Party.

Aung San Suu Kyi friends and allies explain why they are contesting election

So why are they betraying their old friend? The youngest of the three, Nay Ye Ba Swe, explained that the elections are at least a step towards parliamentary democracy.

"If people like us don't participate", she said, "then the generals and their cronies will just stay in power for another 100 years."

Sitting beside her, Cho Cho Kyaw Nein added, "Suu Kyi is like a sister to us. I am sure she understands."

Funding issues

As we chatted about the rigours of campaigning, sipping tea in white porcelain cups, you could be forgiven for thinking that these Three Princesses, which is what people call them, are simply playing at politics.

That would be far from the truth. They have all been imprisoned for their pro-democracy activities.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party are boycotting the poll

None of the opposition candidates are getting government funding for their campaigns. The Three Princesses had to sell jewellery to fund the printing of pamphlets and transport costs.

Another candidate, Dr Phone Win, who is standing as an independent candidate, is using his savings. He told me that the government party, the Big Party as people call it, are intimidating voters.

"Some voters", he said, "have been warned that they will lose their homes if they don't vote for the Big Party or that they will lose their shops in the market".

Special permission and one week's warning are demanded for a meeting of more than five people.

And the election campaign has coincided with the rainy season. The streets of Rangoon were impassable for hours every day that I was there.

But to hire a government approved building can cost hundreds of dollars per hour, a luxury only affordable for the Big Party.

"In Burma, we cannot expect a free and fair election," was an understatement from a weary looking Dr Win.

Rare satire

It is hard to cover an election in a country where, if you are found working as a journalist, you are likely to be arrested and deported. This has happened to me before in Burma and I tried to avoid it happening again.

The regime just included what they wanted in the constitution, and the election is now just to legalise that constitution
Burmese monk and Saffron Revolution leader

Foreigners, especially those carrying cameras, are watched by plain clothes agents wherever they go. People are wary of talking about politics to strangers in public.

So it was a refreshing change to come across in Mandalay a satirical cabaret performed by the "Two Moustaches" which lambasts and ridicules the generals.

In their hour-long show, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw offer typical Burmese folklore dance and song with scathing asides on the junta, accusing them of nepotism, cronyism, dealing in drugs and murder.

No wonder the two of them have been in and out of prison like yo-yos. Today they are only allowed to perform to tourists in English.

So what do they think of the elections?

"It is just old wine being poured into new bottles," said Law Zaw, laughing, "Johnny Walker, Ballantines, they're just changing the bottles."

This Suu Kyi supporter says he will not vote

And will he vote? "No. We voted for the one we want, Aung San Suu Kyi, 20 years ago. That is enough. What is the point of voting again? We love her."

It is an opinion you hear a lot in Burma. People voted for the leader and the party in the last elections and they were ignored and so, they argue, what is the point of voting again in these elections, junta-style?

I spoke to one senior monk who was a leader in the Saffron Revolution and is now in hiding in a monastery near Mandalay.

Talking in one of the monks' dormitories where no-one would see us, he said the tightly controlled polls will give the junta the result they want.

"This election should give us democracy. But it won't," he said.

"The regime just included what they wanted in the constitution, and the election is now just to legalise that constitution."

Watch Sue Lloyd-Roberts' full report on the election in Burma on Newsnight on Thursday 4 November 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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