Burma’s military junta is expected to cement its grip on power Sunday in an election widely considered to be illegitimate.
Despite announcements by regime leaders that democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi will be released from house arrest in the days after the vote, sources close to her say they have not received any confirmation of this decision from the junta.
Mrs. Suu Kyi’s current period of detention expires on Nov. 13. She has been kept under house arrest by the junta for 14 of the past 20 years.
“Although there have been some rumblings that [Mrs. Suu Kyi’s release] is imminent, the situation is really unclear right now,” said Jared Genser, Mrs. Suu Kyi’s international counsel. “In my experience, you need to see what the junta does, not listen to what it says.”
Mr. Genser said that when Mrs. Suu Kyi’s domestic lawyer last saw her some weeks ago, she had not been told that her release was imminent.
The military junta is scheduled to hold Burma’s first election in two decades on Sunday. Mrs. Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won the last election in 1990 by a landslide but was prevented from ruling by the military.
The military has implemented laws that force political parties to expel members with criminal records, including political prisoners such as Mrs. Suu Kyi.
Parties also are required to swear allegiance to the 2008 constitution under which the military is guaranteed a quarter of the seats in the lower house of parliament and one-third in the upper house regardless of the outcome of the vote. The 2008 constitution was written by delegates handpicked by the regime and without input from the opposition.
The Obama administration does not consider the vote to be legitimate and has expressed disappointment that Mrs. Suu Kyi has been barred from participating.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said he, too, does not consider the process to be legitimate. This sentiment was echoed by Jeremy Browne, Britain’s Foreign Office minister for human rights, in an interview with Channel News Asia this week.
The Burmese government has prohibited international observers and foreign journalists from monitoring or covering the elections.
State Department spokesman Noel Clay said the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon would not participate in Burmese government-sponsored “election tours” for diplomats based in the Burmese capital.
“Tightly controlled, government-sponsored tours of election activities are not a substitute for genuine election observation,” Mr. Clay said.
An international human rights group, meanwhile, said the military has stepped up intimidation of people ahead of the vote.
“Burma’s Nov. 7 elections are being conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation, and resignation,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“These elections are about elite military transformation, not democratic transition, and offer little change to Burma’s deplorable human rights situation. … The international community doesn’t need to wait until November 7 to know these elections are rigged from top to bottom,” she added.
Mrs. Suu Kyi’s supporters fear the military will place strict conditions on her if she were to be released.
Mr. Genser said the regime is worried about the big crowds that will gather to catch a glimpse of Mrs. Suu Kyi. “Having spontaneous crowds of tens of thousands turn up is something the regime will find very disturbing,” he said.
Nyo Ohn Myint, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the NLD (Liberated Area), said in an e-mail interview that Mrs. Suu Kyi’s release would depend on how comfortable Burma’s military ruler, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, is “feeling about his security and government after the election.”
Mr. Myint said there is an overarching belief among second-tier generals that Mrs. Suu Kyi’s detention has become a burden for the government. “But no one dares to convince Senior Gen. Than Shwe to move forward,” he said.
The U.S., meanwhile, continues to urge Burmese authorities to release all political prisoners and begin a “genuine political dialogue with the democratic opposition and ethnic minority leaders as a first step towards national reconciliation,” Mr. Clay said.
The Obama administration has yet to appoint a special representative and policy coordinator for Burma as required by the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008.
The Obama administration has expressed a commitment to filling this position. Its nominee must be confirmed by the Senate.
At present, Burma is part of the portfolio of Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.