Burmese gloomy over election year prospects

Some of Asia's poorest people will get to vote for the first time in 20 years
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The Independent Online

Winds of change are whistling through Asia's most entrenched military dictatorship. Twenty years after the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's democrats were cruelly cheated of power after winning a general election by a landslide, Burma is to have another election some time in 2010.

After years in the deep freeze, relations with the US are thawing thanks to President Barack Obama's new policy of engagement. And although Ms Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, recent initiatives by the regime have hinted at movement even there.

But for Burma's impoverished people, all of this is so much eyewash. Violent crackdowns, mass arrests and crippling economic decline have robbed them of hope. Ideas about democracy and freedom are a luxury they cannot afford; the daily preoccupation is survival.

Min Zaw is 28. At his home in a rundown suburb of Rangoon, he makes caramel puddings in little plastic pots and sells them wholesale to small shops and street stalls.

"My life is all about small economic calculations. It's all I think about," he said as he walked through the covered market on colonial Rangoon's 18th Street to buy sugar. He will buy a big bag for a week and haul it back home on the bus, together with cardboard trays of broken eggs that he buys at a discount.

Mr Zaw aims to make a profit of 5,000 kyat (£3.10) per day, a handsome wage in Burma where most people earn less than 60p, but that depends on everything running smoothly. Electricity in Rangoon is rationed to five or six hours a day and, if the power goes out at the wrong time, he may have to run a costly generator. At the end of each month, as people wait for their next pay packet, demand for his puddings tails off sharply. Some days he makes nothing at all.

In 2007, recently out of university, Mr Zaw joined the democracy demonstrations led by Burma's Buddhist monks and dreamed of an end to military oppression and a brighter economic future. But the Saffron Revolution was crushed by force and nearly broke his business.

"All the shops were closed. People were scared and quiet. I couldn't sell anything," he recalled. "I am still interested in politics but I have to earn money, so I can't get involved."

Burma's generals have held power since 1962 and built personal fortunes from the sale of the country's abundant natural resources – oil, gas, teak and gems. But their people are among Asia's poorest and cannot rely on their rulers for anything. While the generals have spent billions on their shiny new capital, Naypyidaw, spending on public healthcare accounts for a miniscule 0.3 per cent of the national budget.

International attention remains focused on the plight of Ms Suu Kyi, the 64-year-old Nobel laureate and democracy icon. This week, Gordon Brown sent her a new year message, praising her courage and selflessness. In his letter, the British Prime Minister urged Burma's rulers to ensure that elections were free and fair. But under a new constitution approved in 2008, the military would hold 25 per cent of seats in the new parliament and would reserve the right to dissolve it.

As a result, many ordinary citizens have already dismissed the vote as a sham, saying it will merely cement the power of the junta. Thu Zar, a clerk at a government office in Rangoon, bows her head and giggles with her friend when I ask her whether she thinks the elections will bring change. She looks up, shaking her head slowly from side to side. "There will not be any change," she says firmly.

For ordinary Burmese, Ms Suu Kyi has become an almost mythical symbol of change. "[She] is important because we have no one else," says Ko Aung, 31, a university lecturer. "We want her to be free. We don't know if she will give us more opportunities but apart from her we have no one, we have nothing."