Night of the junta

Despite a sham election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s imminent release offers hope to Burma.

The only party displaying posters here - and then only a handful - is the Union Solidarity and Development (USDP), the main proxy of the military junta, and the only party with the resources to campaign all over the country. Its victory is a foregone conclusion and, when it comes, it will be greeted by millions of Bur­mese with a sneer and a shudder.

“I don't like it," said the driver of the taxi I hailed outside the British embassy. "The regime is lying to the people and to all the world. They don't know what democracy is. This election is a lie." The prominence of the USDP throws into strong relief what a weird election this is. Its parent organisation has long been notorious among Burma-watchers for one thing: the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and a convoy of supporters on 30 May 2003 at Depayin in the north of the country, north-west of Mandalay. Late at night in an isolated area, the opposition leader's car was ambushed by a large crowd of thugs armed with sticks, clubs and knives. More than 50 members and followers of her party were massacred that night and her number two suffered a severe head injury. Aung San Suu Kyi, the back window of her car smashed in, escaped death thanks only to the courage of her driver.

Democracy develops as a way of sublimating warlike instincts into more constructive ends, but it is clear that, for Burma's generals, war
is war, whatever other fancy names people give it. When Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma's first leader after independence, stood for election in 1990, it was taken as a declaration of war against the regime: a war that, humiliatingly, her forces won without firing a shot.

Rise without a trace

For the generals, Burma's history over the past 20 years is the story of the military's campaign to reverse that loss - first by putting the opposing army's commander out of action, and then by rewriting the rules to give its profoundly unpopular proxies an advantage. The most cunning and decisive move was to ban from the election political parties with convicts in their membership - thus requiring Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy either to expel its leader or to suffer liquidation. Prompted by her, it chose the latter.

Victory in an election will be the crowning achievement of the Than Shwe years. The short, portly, inarticulate and poorly educated former postal worker who came to power in 1992 is the Zelig of Burma; the man without qualities who climbed to the apex of the military largely because nobody could bring themselves to believe that he posed a threat. Though Than Shwe is an object of ridicule for Burma's democrats, his hagiographer will not find it difficult to construct a heroic narrative from the events of the past 17 years.

Slowly and fitfully, but with clear evidence of a grand design, Than Shwe has buried democracy's hopes of coming to any sort of credible fruition in his country - establishing a National Convention in 1992 to write a new constitution, setting a so-called seven-step road map to democracy 11 years later, fixing a referendum on the new constitution in 2008 (92 per cent purportedly voted "Yes"), and now the keystone: an election that will cement in place the military's right to rule the country (they will hold 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, occupy the key ministries and retain a veto on legislation) with a window-dressing of what they call "disciplined democracy".

But Than Shwe's most distinctive achievement, one that even his swaggering predecessor Ne Win could not match, has been to build himself a new capital, Naypyidaw, hundreds of kilometres north of Rangoon. The city is adorned with statues of ancient kings, and its name translates as "the royal capital" or "abode of the kings" - a nod to where Than Shwe's megalomanic instincts are tending.

Yet uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. The worst problem, as in so many other post-colonial countries, is legitimacy. After centuries of coercive rule, how does a home-grown leader persuade his people that he has the right to demand their obedience? Democracy alone may not be enough; in the admirably democratic years of Prime Minister U Nu, the country was practically torn in pieces by contending insurgencies. Seizing power in a coup in 1962, Ne Win fell back on military might.

The failure of the military's earlier proxy, the National Unity Party, to gain more than ten seats in the election of 1990 exposed the huge gap between the army's claim on power and what the people were disposed to grant it. The army, as that result showed, no more enjoyed the affection of the population than the British before them. And in Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father founded the Burmese army and negotiated independence from the British in 1947, it had found a person with a far more persuasive claim to legitimacy.

Than Shwe has devoted himself to constructing an edifice that would loom over Aung San Suu Kyi, rooting the army's claim to power in the nation's traditional iconography. That this is a hopelessly atavistic endeavour goes without saying. It threatens to leave Burma becalmed in a settlement in which the people's demands for the most miserable basics of life continue to be ignored, and in which border wars drag on.

The only ray of hope is that the end of the reigns of Burmese rulers - Than Shwe is 77 - are always moments of uncertainty; and Aung San Suu Kyi is finally due to be freed on 13 November. The consequences are utterly unpredictable.