Burma Election: Are Activists the New Third Force in Politics?

The Burma election this year is widely expected to reinforce the junta’s power. But some nonprofits support the vote, and dozens of political parties are taking part, in hopes of chipping away at military rule.

Rangoon, Burma – Inside a humid room, rows of neatly dressed Burmese students are quizzing their guest lecturer. The class is Social Entrepreneurship and the topic is the European Union, where the lecturer comes from.

Why is Switzerland not in the EU? Why is marijuana legal in some countries but not in others? “Good questions,” the teacher nods.

The class is run by Myanmar Egress, a nonprofit organization that has become a one-stop shop for civil society activism in military-ruled Burma (Myanmar). Founded in 2006 by academics and businesspeople, it offers paid courses from Development Economics to Public Speaking Skills to Team Building. It also has a public policy research arm and conducts humanitarian relief assessments, while quietly extending into political education.

But the group also takes a conciliatory stance toward the unpopular junta, raising hackles among some democracy activists. It allegedly has close ties to the regime, and supports the controversial elections set for later this year, part of a seven-stage road map toward a “discipline-flourishing democracy.”

Critics say these elections, the first to be held in 20 years, will simply perpetuate military rule behind a civilian façade. The US has warned that voting is unlikely to be free and fair.

Some analysts have identified Myanmar Egress and other moderate groups as a new “Third Force” that seeks to steer a path between the regime and its opponents, including detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy is boycotting the vote.

Others doubt that Myanmar Egress is a force for democratic change because of its alleged close ties with the junta, says Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy, a magazine published in Thailand by exiled Burmese activists. “It’s a very controversial group of people. They appear to be supporting the regime’s road map and the elections.”

Tin Maung Thann, a co-founder of Myanmar Egress, says it would be naïve to expect a swift reversion to democracy after nearly 50 years of military rule. He argues that reform can begin at the margins, then move into the mainstream once the rules of the game are established.

Training young people in fields like rural development, and securing the best and brightest to study overseas, is one way to seed this change, he says. “We know how to create the (political) space.”

To Engage or to Boycott?

A similar debate on how to tackle Burma has played out in international politics. The Obama administration has sought to engage Burma’s rulers, with little visible success. Its demands for the release of Ms. Suu Kyi and other political prisoners have been ignored. The US and other Western powers have imposed economic sanctions on Burma, but its neighbors, led by Thailand and China, have stepped up trade and investment.

Western diplomats admit that sanctions haven’t undermined the regime. They say that an election and handover to civilian rule, however circumscribed, could trigger a review. But much will depend on the treatment of Suu Kyi, whose current sentence ends in February 2011 and who remains an international icon, though her political party recently split over whether to participate in elections. A breakaway group has registered as a new party.

Phyo Min Thein, a student union leader, was imprisoned for 14 years for subversion. He leads the Union Democratic Party, which aims to contest at least half the national seats in parliament. He criticizes what he calls unfair advantages given to the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is favored to beat out the 42 other parties that have registered so far. Among its advantages, USDP has spent years building a mass membership while other parties were not yet allowed to organize, and its logo is used on government projects. Yet Phyo Min Thein is determined to compete in the elections and use the parliament to push an opposition platform.

Western sanctions haven’t worked, he agrees. But to end them now would be premature. “If the government holds free and fair elections and convenes parliament, then sanctions should be lifted. But this government always breaks its promises,” he says.

Among ordinary Burmese, the upcoming elections evoke reactions of skepticism, apathy, and apprehension. Some shrug off the notion that anything will change at the ballot box. Others say it’s too dangerous to talk politics.

A small businessman who bemoans the regime’s mishandling of the economy says any change would be beneficial, as long as it eases the military out of policymaking. A slow, painful transition to civilian control is the only way for the country to progress, he argues. For that reason, he has no appetite for an opposition victory at the polls, as in 1990. That result was later annulled by the junta, paralyzing the political process for a generation.

“We must give [the military] a proper exit,” he says. “If we don’t, they will fight back like a cornered dog.”

Editor’s note: Reporter’s name withheld for security reasons.