- - Thursday, March 29, 2012

BANGKOK Recent polls predict that democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi will easily win a seat in Myanmar’s parliamentary elections Sunday, amid expectations that Washington will respond by easing economic sanctions against the Southeast Asian country long ruled by a brutal military regime.

Several analysts say the new army-backed government of President Thein Sein will ensure that Ms. Suu Kyi wins a seat to gain favor from the Obama administration. One advocate of democracy called the election nothing more than “political theater.”

“It is much more dangerous for President Thein Sein if Aung San Suu Kyi fails to win her seat,” political analyst Nicholas Farrelly said on his New Mandala website.

“Such an outcome would lead to inevitable cries of vote-rigging and could spark an uncontrollable backlash. It may even spell the end of the nascent democratizing project,” he said.

Maung Zarni, a Myanmar analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science, fears the regime is holding a sham election like the one in 2010 that brought the current government to power amid international cries of voter fraud.

“They’re holding a game of political theater with the West. They want to showcase this election and be on their best behavior so they can get candy from the West. They want the West to lift sanctions.”

The elections will not change the balance of power because only 45 out of 664 seats in parliament are on the ballot. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party controls 75 percent of the legislature.

Ms. Suu Kyi and several other members of her National League for Democracy are expected to win some of the seats. Fifteen other parties also are running.

Ms. Suu Kyi, 66, is campaigning from Kawhmu township, a district south of her hometown, Yangon, and could be building momentum for a nationwide election in 2015 when she will be 70.

During more than a decade of U.S. and other international sanctions, China and India have been exploiting Myanmar’s oil, natural gas and other resources and selling weapons to the military.

Columbia University professor Joseph E. Stiglitz, who visited the country in 2009 and again in February, has suggested “removing the sanctions that have now become an impediment to the country’s transformation.”

The sanctions include a ban on most international banking activity, rendering credit cards and bank transfers useless.

The military has ruled Myanmar since a 1962 coup and is guilty of some of the world’s worst human rights violations, including forced labor, extrajudicial killings, torture and imprisonment, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

“In addition, there are U.S. laws that impose sanctions on Myanmar for unacceptable behavior … such as the use of child soldiers, drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, failure to protect religious freedom and violations of workers’ rights,” said Murray Hiebert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mrs. Suu Kyi’s campaigning has helped push the regime toward some reforms, such as releasing hundreds of political prisoners and loosening some restrictions.

The government-controlled media no longer bark out racist slurs against her for being the widow of a white British man and an “ax handle” for the CIA.

“Media coverage of the elections is heavily tilted toward the participation of the Myanmar democracy icon Ms. Suu Kyi,” said Bidhayak Das of the Asian Network for Free Elections.

In a 1990 nationwide election, Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won 392 of the 492 contested seats in parliament, which should have allowed her to become prime minister.

But the military barred her from taking office and held her under house arrest on and off for more than 15 years. She was released in November 2010.

Mr. Thein Sein said political reforms are inspiring many Myanmar exiles to return.

“Overwhelmed by the political reforms of the country, migrant Myanmar citizens are coming back home to serve the nation,” he said in a speech last week.

“Their expertise, experiences and wisdom are priceless forces for us. We are keeping the door open for the remaining national brethren. Please come back. Cooperate with us for national development. Doors are always [open] for you.”

Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups, meanwhile, remain wary, especially because many have been fighting guerrilla wars for greater autonomy or independence since the 1950s.

Since June, 20,000 ethnic-Kachin guerrillas have battled the regime in northern Myanmar, where more than 40,000 people have fled the fighting along China’s mountainous southern border.

“The suffering of Kachin people is the suffering of Myanmar people, and we all have to find a cure for these problems,” Ms. Suu Kyi said this month during a campaign visit to Kachin state, though she has not offered any solution.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.