Rock the vote in Burma

BANGKOK, Thailand — On Burmese TV, the nation’s military junta supplies free health care, pop stars croon for ethnic unity and citizens are called on to crush the U.S. radio network Voice of America.

Welcome to election season in one of the world’s most oppressive backwaters.

Though Burma (officially called “Myanmar”) will soon hold its first elections in 20 years, the military-run government has yet to announce the polling date. The opposition isn’t allowed to assemble. And more than 2,000 political dissidents — including Aung San Suu Kyi, elected prime minister during abolished 1990 elections — remain in confinement.

But that hasn’t stopped the military government from advertising itself as just and gentle, even as Burma watchdogs insist soldiers are harassing, arresting and even killing dissenters in the run-up to elections.

“The military is pre-campaigning for the election now, even though they don’t call it that,” said Khin Ohmar, policy specialist with the non-profit Forum for Democracy in Burma.

“It’s very intense,” she said. “Let’s say I’m a singer and I want to produce my album. I won’t even get permission if I don’t sing some pro-military regime songs.”

The propaganda is particularly aimed at Burma’s patchwork of ethnic minorities, whose guerilla forces remain locked into what scholars call the “world’s longest running war.”

The junta has sought to ease this ethnic tension with humanitarian infomercials, Ohmar said. One televised segment shows army surgeons correcting the eyesight of villagers, who are shown weeping with gratitude.

But when the propaganda machine goes on the offense, Western critics are personified as a Yosemite Sam-esque cartoon of former President George W. Bush. A state-run newspaper’s review of “Rambo IV,” which portrays the mercenary splattering Burmese soldiers with bullets, even ridiculed actor Sylvester Stallone’s “saggy breasts.”

The junta’s authority is reinforced by new election laws that can void polling for “natural disasters or security reasons.” The provision, analysts say, could weaken voting power in separatist regions where the military is reviled.

Other provisions, announced earlier this month, would disqualify former political prisoners from running and force Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, to expel her from their roster.

The junta has kept many laws intentionally vague so that generals can interpret rules to their liking, said U Thein Oo, elected as a parliamentarian in the subjugated 1990 vote.

“It’s a very, very oppressive law,” he said. “The members of opposition parties, many of them, are already under house arrest or in jail.”

According to new election laws, Burma’s post-regime government will be controlled by two parliamentary houses. One-fourth of one house — and one-third of the other — will be stacked with army generals’ appointees.

“All you’re going to see is military men changing into a civilian uniform, along with their business cronies,” Ohmar said. “It’s like old wine in a new bottle.”

In the lead-up to elections, the military has heightened attacks on political opponents, said Benjamin Zawacki, an Amnesty International researcher based in Bangkok. Soldiers have recently targeted secret political gatherings, according to recent Amnesty International research, sometimes imprisoning, beating or gunning down activists caught meeting in private.

The junta, Zawacki said, is wiping out dissent to avoid a repeat of the 1990 elections that nearly stripped its power. “Those elections have dogged the government,” he said. “This year’s elections present an opportunity to place 1990 firmly behind them.”

However, Burma’s coming elections will force particularly tough decisions from the U.S., said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political scientist with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

The European Union will likely denounce the elections, Pavin said, and neighboring trading partners China and Thailand will likely accept them.

But under the Obama administration, the U.S. has conceded that anti-Burma sanctions have largely failed. Though relations with Burma remain frayed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested that lifting some sanctions could entice better behavior from Burma’s rulers.

“The U.S. can’t run away, but it can’t just adopt the same old policies,” Pavin said. “The U.S. is preparing itself to cope with a new reality in Burma.”

Burmese activists in exile will likely pressure the U.S. to reject election results. Ohmar’s greatest fear, she said, is that a shallow democracy in Burma will draw the international community closer, even as soldiers continue brutalizing citizens.

“People say, ‘Nothing can be worse than where we are now. Why not take a chance with these elections?’” Ohmar said. “Well, we’re saying it could actually be worse.”