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Inside Burma: A prison of silence

On the eve of elections, fear and mistrust pervade the streets in Burma.

Inside Burma, life’s daily struggle is hard, so thoughts of making a change in government are secondary. It is a country that is resource rich with gas and oil reserves but where one-third of the population lives in poverty. It is estimated that the GDP per capita is less than $500, ranking it among the lowest in the world.

Ninety percent of the population is Buddhist and the influence of Buddhism is immense throughout society. Stunning Buddhist pagodas dot the cities and countryside, every morning Buddhist monks and nuns are seen on the streets seeking alms from homes and businesses. Most children at some point will spend up to a year as a novice in a Buddhist monastery.

Some people use the Buddhist doctrine of karma to explain the political situation, believing that the military leaders must have been well-behaved in their past lives, creating good karma to achieve this level of power. But one Yangon resident described the regime’s belief system this way, “They don’t believe in the rules of karma, they believe in the rules of the jungle.”

On Sunday, Burma will hold its national election. There is concern that the elections are just for show and international groups have called for election observers.

Burma election officials have announced that they will not allow foreign observers and international media into the country for the election. Thein Soe, Burma election commission chairman, said there was no need for election monitors because "our country has a lot of experience in elections. We are holding the election for this country, it’s not for other countries."

This will be the second election held since the military-dominated government seized power in 1962. The only other election was in 1990 and the election results were ignored by the military regime when the National League for Democracy won 80 percent of the parliament's seats.

David Scott Mathieson of Human Rights Watch said "the elections are about transforming and solidifying military rule with a civilian front-parliament. They are about as far from democracy as can be imagined. This is the Burmese military changing everything just a little in order to keep everything just the same.”

When asked how the Burmese view these elections, he said, “Most Burmese view the elections with apathy and apprehension, the elections have very little to do with them and more to do with elite games: by the military, their cronies and the handful of genuine democrats who are running and have been permitted to participate. The elections have excluded large parts of the Burmese, but not all of them. Yet if this is enough to express hope, then it's hope based on very flimsy expectations.”

One college-age Burmese citizen recently told me, “The election is a step taken by the military government to legitimize itself as an elected body. I don't have any personal interest in it.”

When asked who will vote he replied, “Those who are civil servants will surely have to vote for the pro-government parties and also people who are pressured. But I don't see any public enthusiasm as in the 1990 election and many people do not look forward to real positive change.”

“What Burma needs is not an election, but a revolution by the people,” he added.

On the worn streets of the capital other residents are similarly pessimistic. They talked about “growing up in fear” and wondered what they could do after 50 years of a corrupt and repressive military regime.

“We wait for change, but everybody is waiting for someone to do something,” one Burmese woman said. Another stated that many in the country are “waiting for karma.” But waiting for karma in Burma might involve more patience than perhaps even the Buddha had.