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Myanmar's junta prepares ground for elections

Myanmar's generals have shed their uniforms and are establishing a new political party ahead of the country's first election in two decades, but doubts remain over whether any real change is likely.

world Updated: May 02, 2010 10:49 IST

Myanmar's generals have shed their uniforms and are establishing a new political party ahead of the country's first election in two decades, but doubts remain over whether any real change is likely.

The military government, which faces strict Western sanctions because of its human rights record, has billed this year's polls - expected in late October or November - as a shift of power outside its entrenched military structure.

But critics charge that the shift is essentially cosmetic and part of a long expected bid by the military regime to buy some legitimacy.

Prime Minister Thein Sein and 22 other ministers resigned from the military last week to officially become civilians ahead of the polls.

"They will just change their military uniform. Their positions will be still the same as before," a Myanmar official told AFP.

The premier then filed to form the "Union Solidarity and Development Party" (USDP), a name echoing Myanmar's body charged with lobbying and social activities, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

Win Min, a Myanmar researcher at the University of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, said the similarity was not a coincidence.

"It is very clear. They used the same name as the USDA. This is the pro-junta party," Win Min said.

David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar at Human Rights Watch, said "it's like the script is playing itself out" as the rulers attempt to polish their image.

"For so long people have been assuming this is going to happen, and now it is. They're taking off their uniforms, they're claiming they're going to transform into a political party. It's going according to the plan," he said. The international community did not conceal its anger in early March when the regime unveiled election laws that effectively barred opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, along with other serving prisoners, from taking part.

The Peace Prize laureate has lived under house arrest in Yangon for more than 14 of the last 20 years.

The legislation forced her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to consider ousting her as leader to enable it to register for the elections -- a move it later decided against.

The NLD, the country's main opposition party, has opted to boycott the poll and may face dissolution, leaving the way clear for the junta at the ballot box.

By Friday, 25 parties, most of them pro-junta, had filed for registration, with 12 of them so far accepted and others under review, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

Without the NLD, which won the last polls held in 1990 but was stopped from taking power, the opposition is decidedly weak.

NLD lawyers have filed an appeal with the Supreme Court to try to prevent the party being dissolved. But the case has little chance of success and the NLD may be living its last days.

"Some of the NLD members disagree with the boycott and could decide to form a new party," said exiled analyst Aung Naing Oo.

"But if the NLD does not accept what I call a strategic deconstruction, they could split into factions and undermine each other, which would be a disaster."

In the meantime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially known, is painting itself as an acceptable regime, even though Western nations have suggested they will not recognise the poll.

"These senior officers who have just resigned, once that party starts taking shape, this is clearly SPDC version 2.0," said Mathieson.