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Members of the National Democratic Force party (NDF) put up a poster of Myanmar's detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the gate to the party's headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar, Friday, Nov. 5, 2010. Political gatherings are only allowed with a week's notice and an official review of the campaign speech. Hundreds of potential opposition candidates, including pro-democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi, are under house arrest or in prison. Many of the rrules were clearly written to benefit the proxy party for the ruling junta. (Khin Maung Win/The Associated Press/Khin Maung Win/The Associated Press)
Members of the National Democratic Force party (NDF) put up a poster of Myanmar's detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the gate to the party's headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar, Friday, Nov. 5, 2010. Political gatherings are only allowed with a week's notice and an official review of the campaign speech. Hundreds of potential opposition candidates, including pro-democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi, are under house arrest or in prison. Many of the rrules were clearly written to benefit the proxy party for the ruling junta. (Khin Maung Win/The Associated Press/Khin Maung Win/The Associated Press)

Grim mood contrasts starkly with previous Myanmar vote Add to ...

For those who took part in Myanmar's last election, the difference between the excitement of then - as Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy headed toward a landslide win in 1990 - and the grim mood of now, as the country prepares to hold its first vote since the stolen election, couldn't be greater.

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Back then, it seemed as though the country better known as Burma was about to be swept up in the wave of liberation that was toppling repressive regimes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the military junta that ruled the country then and now refused to step aside, setting the stage for two decades of stagnation and isolation.

This time around, the NLD is boycotting the election and Ms. Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, as she has for most of the past two decades. Sunday's election is largely seen as an attempt by Senior General Than Shwe and his junta to rebrand themselves and gain legitimacy by having the country's leaders doff their military uniforms in favour of business suits.

The real competition will primarily be between two pro-military parties.

Myanmar is having an election?

Yes, but not one that the NLD felt was worth participating in. Rather than run and lose under unfair conditions, Ms. Suu Kyi's party decided to cling to its position that the 1990 vote was legitimate and its results should be honoured.

Ms. Suu Kyi herself was barred from standing as a candidate this time around because of her "criminal record." Meanwhile, the parties that did choose to field candidates are barred from directly criticizing the government. The pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party has the resources of the government and military at its disposal.

But despite the fact most observers are skeptical about the process, there are some who welcome the limited political space the campaign will create. A breakaway wing of the NLD, running as the National Democratic Force, went against Ms. Suu Kyi's wishes and registered, arguing that even a sham election will at least let them get their message out. They're betting slow change is better than none.

Mark MacKinnon's tweets on the Myanmar election

Will there be any surprises?

It seems unlikely. The regime's new constitution sets aside one-quarter of the seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament for the military regardless of how the vote goes. Advance voting by some three million soldiers and civil servants - many of whom were reportedly pressured into casting their ballots for the USDP - may have secured a majority for the USDP even before election day.

In many districts, the only candidates running against the USDP are from the National Unity Party, another pro-military movement headed by loyalists of Gen. Than Shwe's predecessor as junta boss, Ne Win. It was the NUP that Ms. Suu Kyi's party thrashed 20 years ago (when the NLD won 80 per cent of the seats), but her followers now find themselves in the unfamiliar position of rooting for the NUP to steal votes from the USDP and spoil Gen. Than Shwe's plans.

"Young voters have no idea what the NUP did [in the past] But right now they know they have no Internet, freedom of speech is bad, public transportation is getting worse and books and schools are too expensive," said Nyo Ohn Myint, a former adviser to Ms. Suu Kyi who now lives in exile in Thailand. He said he now considers the NUP the "lesser of two evils."

In a sign relations between the two pro-military parties could deteriorate, the NUP candidate running against Prime Minister Thein Sein was badly injured in a motorcycle accident that some believe may have been an assassination attempt.

Some pro-democracy activists have said they will try to stage a popular uprising around election day. However, a reporter in Rangoon said there were few signs of unrest and a heavy military presence ahead of the polls.

The regime is taking few chances. The Internet in Myanmar has been under sustained attack in recent days, making it difficult to access websites such as Gmail and Facebook. Meanwhile, monks at Rangoon monasteries that took part in the unsuccessful "Saffron Revolution" in 2007 say many of their younger colleagues were forced to return to their hometowns in the countryside ahead of Sunday's vote.

What will turnout be like?

It's a key question, the only way to measure the success or failure of the NLD's boycott call.

Some say the regime will declare a high turnout whatever the real figure is. The junta claimed 98-per-cent participation in a 2008 referendum to approve the new constitution, despite the fact there was little enthusiasm for the ballot, which was held while the country was recovering from Cyclone Nargis, which devastated swathes of the country and left 140,000 dead.

Foreign observers and media have been denied visas for Sunday's election, and there will be no voting at all in areas along Myanmar's borders with Thailand and China, where ethnic militias opposed to the junta hold sway.

"How could you tell how many people turn out to vote when they lock up the whole country?" said Aung Zaw, editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy, a Myanmarese exile publication headquartered in Chiang Mai. "If they want to show this is not a sham process, they have to let the opposition win some seats …but [parliament]will be filled with uniformed and un-uniformed military people."

The regime nonetheless seems worried about the prospect of an embarrassingly low participation rate. Campaigners in Rangoon were Friday printing stylized "I Vote" stickers and T-shirts in an apparent effort to counter the boycott call.

"There's no point in voting, but I will go along to a polling station so I can see how they cheat," said a 42-year-old taxi driver in Rangoon who supported the NLD in the last election. "I will tick all the boxes to ruin my [ballot] so that they cannot use my name or vote for themselves."

And what about Aung San Suu Kyi?

The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate's latest house arrest began last year when a mentally unstable American man, John Yettaw, swam across a lake to reach her property and then spent the night uninvited at her house. The bizarre caper gave the government a convenient excuse to once more lock up its most prominent opponent.

The 65-year-old Ms. Suu Kyi, with the highest profile of the regime's estimated 2,100 political prisoners, is due to be released from her latest detention on Nov. 13. While the junta has promised she will be freed on schedule, that could change if there's any postelection turmoil.

What is Canada's position?

Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon has attacked the "oppressive conditions" under which, he says, the elections are being held, a position similar to that of the United States and many European countries. One power that has been less critical is China. He Shengda, an expert on Myanmar at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing is more interested in "stability and peace and development" than seeing rapid political change.

Isn't the country called Burma?

It was until 1989, when the regime changed its name to Myanmar, arguing that Burma was a colonial term imposed by the British. The change was accepted by the United Nations.

Ms. Suu Kyi and her supporters, however, have argued that since the junta is illegitimate, it had no right to make the change. They've asked the international community to continue to refer to the country as Burma and its supporters as Burmese.

Whatever you call it, the country is desperately poor. The World Food Programme estimates that the vast majority of the population spends 75 per cent of their income on food. Electricity cuts in and out regularly even in Rangoon, and mobile phones cost double the average annual wage. The average lifespan in the country is 60 years, a decade shorter than in neighbouring Thailand.

With a report from a special correspondent in Rangoon

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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