Suu Kyi's rivals are trying to steal election
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Suu Kyi's rivals are trying to steal election

As electioneering enters its final days, most people in Myanmar are increasingly worried that these elections will not be free, fair nor credible.

Monitors from the US-based election watchdog, the Carter Centre -- established by the former American president Jimmy Carter -- have already raised serious questions, pointing especially to the "potentially disruptive use of nationalist and religious rhetoric", in an initial report released last week.

The Carter Centre is only one of several international organisations, including the Asian Network for Free Election and the European Union, carefully watching these elections. Eight thousand monitors and observers -- including local groups -- have fanned out throughout the country.

Despite this, concerns are mounting daily, in part because of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party's (USDP) bravado. Its nominal head, acting chairman Htay Oo, insists they will win more than 80% of the seats being contested.

Already they are preparing to form the next administration -- ministers and chief ministers are being put in place, according to Myanmar businessmen who deal daily with ministers and government officials.

But this does not fit with the popular mood on the streets where the National League for Democracy (NLD) is drawing thousands of supporters to their rallies. And in the border areas, the ethnic parties are undoubtedly also very popular. Many opinion polls, including the Asian Barometer, put the NLD well ahead of the USDP -- so why are the USDP so confident that the election results will favour them?

The USDP will get the numbers needed to control parliament with the help of military members of the assembly -- under the constitution, 25% of the seats in parliament are selected by the army commander in chief.

A USDP MP -- who declined to be identified -- shrugged off the appearance that the party had a bleak future. "We know we are unpopular, but we'll still win," he insisted. So what has the USDP got up its sleeve?

Monks take part in a protest against Rohingya Muslims. The ultra-nationalist Ma Ba Tha monks' organisation is supporting the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in the election. (Reuters photo)

The party's election strategy is clear: by concentrating on the township level -- and selecting those constituencies where they have a strong support base -- they believe they can muster the backing of important local institutions or people who can help to influence the outcome of the vote.

"There are good relations with senior monks, leading businessmen and [local] Government Administration Departments -- they will secure the vote for us," said the MP.

Although the strategy is many-faceted, it is monks who are emerging as the leading tool of quiet manipulation. "In rural areas particularly, senor monks are very influential … what they say is like an order," said Yan Myo Thein, a political commentator and former political prisoner. And already they are having a significant impact on voters throughout the country.

A Mon activist's mother told her not to come home if she was going to spread NLD propaganda in the village. "There's no point, the whole village has decided to vote USDP and you won't convince us otherwise," she was told emphatically. The monks had stirred up anti-NLD sentiment on the pretext of protecting, preserving and promoting nationalism, race and religion.

In Mon, Kachin and Karen states, the monks have successfully mobilised voters, according to officials from various parties there. They have not told people who to vote for, but simply not to vote for the NLD because, if elected, it would endanger the country's security and threaten the country's culture, race and religion, said an academic, on condition of anonymity.

Many villages in the eastern region, along the border with Thailand, have put up signs at the village entrances saying "NLD not welcome here".

The monks have not confined their activities to the rural areas, where reverence for them is highest. In the middle of several towns on the outskirts of Pegu -- a city 80 kilometres north east of Yangon -- the Ma Ba Tha (the committee for the protection of culture, race and religion) has erected large signs urging people to use their vote responsibly, and only support candidates who will protect the Buddhist religion.

But even in central Yangon they have been carrying out their crusade. Recently a local senior monk visited families in town to preach the dangers of voting for the NLD. The monk stayed six hours with one family that had been staunch NLD supporters all their lives, but now will not cast a vote for the party in this election as a result.

The Ma Ba Tha insists it is not interfering in the elections. "Ma Ba Tha is working for nationalism, religion and race, and is not a follower of any government, party or person," it said in a statement issued last month in response to complaints raised by the NLD leader U Tin Oo.

"For the causes of nationalism, race and religion, we will work hand-in-hand with anyone, while being objectively against any party or person if they bring harm to those causes," continued the statement.

Apart from monks, village headmen are also powerful players in the rural areas and will be instrumental in quietly manipulating the vote in favour of the USDP.

"In rural areas the village leader still rules as a virtual lord," said Kyaw Lin Oo, a political commentator and executive director of the Myanmar People's Forum.

"Fear and ignorance is still very high in the country villages and they'll be influenced by the local hierarchy, which is part of the military machinery of control."

In the Irrawaddy area west of Yangon many rice farmers are still undecided about who to vote for, according to a Japanese NGO worker. "When asked who they were going to vote for, they said they did not know as the village headman had yet to instruct them," he said, speaking anonymously.

So by exploiting the rural peoples' fears, ignorance and prejudices, the USDP hopes to secure a favourable election result, despite the overwhelming popular support that Aung San Suu Kyi enjoys, especially in the cities.

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service news editor for the region.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

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