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Rock the vote in Burma

Harassment and pop star propaganda precede Burma's rare election.

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.”