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The Burmese Elections: Prolonging the Misery and Postponing the Inevitable

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Burma (aka Myanmar) is of the world's most brutal regimes, and unfortunately, it is also amongst the least well understood. In terms of trade and communications, the country is as closed as North Korea and nearly as isolated as Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Its human rights abuses are widespread and increasing. The junta has one of the worst images in the world. It has very few friends, and even it's powerful regional allies (China and India) keep a safe public distance so as not to catch any of the generals' political cooties.

Although the monk-led, nonviolent Saffron Revolution, which hit a peak of public activity in the fall of 2007, has failed thus far to bring an end to the repression, the movement (which was a continuation of the student-led uprising from 1988) still persists. Brave activists risk their lives every day to move information in and out of the country, hoping to give global audiences a glimpse of the horrifying truth behind the veil.

The junta is holding elections sometime later in the year (best guesstimates are for October 10 -- which would make the date 10/10/10, a date consistent with the paranoid generals' fixation on numerology and superstition), but Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy party, which won 81% of the seats in the 1990 parliamentary elections (before the junta declared the victory fraudulent), has been imprisoned or under house arrest for most of the past 22 years and has been banned by the junta from participating in the elections. In protest, the NLD has also withdrawn from the elections. Which means that the people will have very little means constructive means through which to channel their discontent and hope for a free and democratic Burma unless the pro-democracy movement can organize an opposition force within the next three months, a feat that would be daunting even in an open society that permitted freedom of speech, association and movement.

So the conventional wisdom is that the junta will "win" the election and that this will "reinforce their power." This is a dangerous presumption, based on a common and deeply-embedded misconception that violence equals power. The generals will probably win the election because they have beaten, killed, imprisoned and otherwise bullied their competition out of the running. And where the process is corrupted, the result can not be legitimate. So the election will not reinforce the junta's power. It will simply reinforce the lie that the junta has real power.

Political legitimacy can be understood as the situation where the regime still stands even when the threat of force is removed. If the junta in Burma allowed for a fair and competitive election, they would lose. Resoundingly. Which means that the election is nothing more than a farce, designed to placate the increasingly global community with a show of "legitimacy." Because these particular tyrants seem even more removed from reality than many of their counterparts around the world, it is likely that their margin of victory will be enormous (in a healthy democratic election, it is very unusual to get a margin of victory of more than 10 percentage points, and where the incumbent party gets more than 70% in a national election, more times than not it is an indicator of corruption or fraud).

The purpose of a democratic election is to 1) ascertain the best social choice, and 2) bestow legitimacy on the legislative/executive authority. If the process is manipulated so that neither of these things can happen, the outcome is meaningless. Understanding this, it is disappointing to think that any legitimate media observers take this farce of an election to be anything but a pathetic demonstration to the world that the generals can still repress their own people with the worst of them.

With their brutality against Buddhist monks -- the soul of Burma -- the junta gave away their last bits of moral authority. And this farce election is evidence that their last shreds of political legitimacy have evaporated. The international community has an obligation, at the very least, to recognize this inevitable "victory" for what it is -- the last gasp of a decaying system. Sadly, the generals have demonstrated that they do not intend to go down alone. They'll spread the misery as far and wide as possible. But each act of brutality girds the people's will to resist them, and while the junta may again stretch out their tenure, these elections should be viewed not as a beginning, but as the beginning of the end.