Burmese junta pushes people to the polls

On the eve of sham elections, our correspondent in Rangoon finds a nation bitterly divided over the value of its votes

Twenty-seven million Burmese were yesterday being exhorted to go to the polls in an election that is viewed by many as the national junta's means of securing a new lease of life with a veneer of constitutional propriety.

Democracy campaigners have been bitterly split throughout the campaign on whether or not to dignify the process with their participation. But as the final preparations for the election went ahead, some prospective voters were steeling themselves to give the process a grudging endorsement.

"For the most part, people did not have a clear idea whether to vote in the election or not," said U Khin Maung Swe, founder of the National Democratic Force (NDF), a splinter from Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). "Now they realise that they can't avoid the election, they have to pass through it. They have realised that voting in the election might change things."

Tomorrow's poll will elect a grand total of 1,163 seats in state and regional parliaments. Thirty-seven parties are contesting the election. Yet for all the paraphernalia of polling booths, ballot boxes, party icons and even the occasional stump speech, this election is a weirdly lacklustre affair. There is a fatal mismatch between a brutal military dictatorship and the democratic process, with the result that, to many people, voting in this election seems a case of taking their medicine and doing what must be done.

Another opposition candidate, an independent called Dr Saw Naing, commented: "It's like the saying, a drowning man will clutch at a straw. People are looking for some help – any help – to improve their lives."

The party that won 1990's election by a landslide, the NLD, is not contesting the election because of the impossible conditions set it by the generals, and instead is urging people to abstain. It is not hard to find people who agree with them.

Burma's isolated regime has found some contact points with the outside world. The film Resident Evil 4 – Afterlife has been pulling in the crowds in downtown Rangoon this week. But many have a clear sense that "resident evil" is as good a description as any of the regime that in one form or another has squatted on and cut off the country's people for nearly half a century.

At the foot of the Sakura Tower, one of this tatty imperial city's few vaguely modern structures, an ageing freelance tour guide has no doubt about it. "No, I'm not voting," he declares. "This fucking junta is destroying the country." But his support for the NLD was less than gushing. "We love Aung San Suu Kyi," he went on, "but she's a woman, and let's face it, women are not as clever as men, it's a biological fact. And the people around her are not so good."

Others maintain that voting for some opposition candidates is the only way to begin a process of change, however limited. One of them is Ma Thanegi, one of Burma's best-known writers. In 1989 when Suu Kyi travelled the country whipping up support for the democracy movement, she was her personal assistant and companion. She was subsequently jailed for three years.

She and Suu Kyi have since crossed swords, however, and this week Ma Thanegi fiercely condemned the decision by the NLD to demand a boycott.

"People who refuse to vote at the polls are lessening the chances of the weak democratic force that should be given as much support as it can get," she said. She also condemned the NLD's attacks on former members who have broken away and launched new parties to fight the election.

"Everybody knows we are not going to get a perfect democracy overnight," she said. "Things will change slowly. This is just the first step. Nobody has any expectations about it. But what I don't like is old guys in the NLD going around calling the NDF traitors. Don't they have any understanding of democratic rights? It's the right of the NDF to make their own decision to stand for election. If they don't want to support them, fine, but don't call them traitors."

The regime has not made voting obligatory, but the official media has for weeks been full of articles urging people to do their duty. In the countryside, farmers have been threatened with death if they don't vote. A taxi driver who said he did not intend voting said his wife was going to vote because she feared that if she didn't she would be thrown in jail.

But the intimidation is not deterring NLD loyalists from echoing the boycott call. "The election is only the confirmation of military rule by other means," said a retired man in northern Rangoon who was once on Suu Kyi's staff. "It's not a step towards democracy, it's only a way to ensure that military rule continues for a long time. The democratic parties have been organised for show: they want to tell the world that Burma is changing, but it's not true.

"Than Shwe [the 'senior general', Burma's supreme ruler since 1993] will stay in control, he will hang on to power until he dies – because otherwise the Burmese will treat him like a war criminal, which is what he deserves."

The author’s name has been withheld to protect their identity