Burma (officially Myanmar), a beautiful country of proud people but frozen in isolation and military repression, is coming alive. Some prominent democrats in exile, spread in a diaspora from the Thai border through to Canada and Europe, are glimpsing a flicker of hope in the election set for Nov. 7. Can change really be drawing near?
Waiting 20 years for a general election is a long time. It's even longer if the victory you clearly won in 1990 was brushed aside by a military regime that had already ruled disastrously for 28 years. And it's heartbreaking to watch the army brazenly prepare for this new election under a tortuous constitution that guarantees the perpetuation of military dominance.
As an opposition leader, what do you do?
Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, which won 80 per cent of the seats in 1990, denounced the whole process and didn't register to take part in next month's election. The military-controlled Election Commission promptly announced the NLD's dissolution. Ms. Suu Kyi ignored this, telling party offices to continue flying the Fighting Peacock flag.
The All Burma Monks' Alliance is also boycotting the vote. On behalf of the country's 400,000 monks, the alliance led the non-violent Saffron Revolution, which the army vigorously suppressed in 2007.
But some groups see the election as a foot in the door. A breakaway NLD group, the National Democratic Force, has found enough funds to field some 160 candidates, each paying the equivalent of a $500 registration fee. And more than 35 other parties decided to fight this uphill battle.
The 2008 constitution and the Election Commission's actions (banning all three Kachin state parties, for instance, and putting strict controls on campaigning) load daunting odds against opposition parties gaining any real influence in parliament or state legislatures.
Yash Ghai, a Kenyan-born United Nations adviser, has written a devastating 37-page analysis of the constitution, concluding: "The denial of justice, liberty and equality (indeed the fear of these 'virtues') is inscribed in virtually every principle. … The only objective that the constitution will achieve is the privileged position of the armed forces."
Indeed, the generals' efforts to appear as democrats should inspire satire. From sketching a "road map" in 1992, they formed a national convention weighted against the NLD delegates, who soon boycotted it and started their own constitutional deliberations - whereupon the generals announced heavy penalties for such independent attempts.
After a dormant decade, the generals revived the convention and submitted a secret draft to some lawyers and professors. Then, without any public education drive, they held a referendum during the chaos of the catastrophic cyclone of 2008 when 140,000 people were killed and communications were disrupted - and claimed almost unanimous approval.
One-quarter of the seats are reserved for the military. More than two dozen top generals have taken off their uniforms to run for other seats on behalf of the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. The president that parliament elects must have had military experience.
What can the world do? China, with the most influence, will be happy if stability continues. Will Ms. Suu Kyi, whose latest house arrest expires in November, recover some influence with those democrats who manage to get elected? Will leading exiles change tactics and try to engage in this scene, while pinning their real hopes on an election in 2015? So many questions.
Clyde Sanger, an Ottawa-based writer, is the author of Looted Land, Proud People: The Case for Canadian Action in Burma .