Burma announced Friday it will hold its first election in two decades on November 7 -- a vote that activists and the West say is a sham aimed at shoring up the junta's half-century grip on power.
Detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- who has spent much of the past 20 years in jail or under house arrest -- is barred from standing in the polls because she is a serving prisoner.
Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in 1990 but the junta never allowed it to take office.
This time, critics say, the ruling generals are taking no chances, reserving one quarter of the seats in parliament for the military and giving the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) an upper hand.
"The military regime learnt their lessons so they are trying all possible way to ensure this election is won by their parties," said Thai-based activist Naing Aung of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.
He said the USDP, led by Prime Minister Thein Sein, would have a clear advantage in terms of time and resources for campaigning.
"If you did really have a free and fair process, we 100 percent believe that those backed by the military would not win," he added.
A group of former NLD members has formed a new party, the National Democratic Force (NDF), to stand in the election -- a move that has put it at odds with Suu Kyi, who was opposed to participating in the polls.
The NLD opted to boycott the vote because of rules laid down by the junta that in effect would have forced it to expel Suu Kyi and other members in prison in order to participate.
As a result, the party was forcibly disbanded by the junta, which is headed by Burma's leader, Senior General Than Shwe.
The election "cannot be free and fair", the NLD's long-time spokesman Nyan Win told AFP, adding that there was no indication that Suu Kyi would be released early before the polls.
"We still don't have freedom of expression and freedom of information," he added.
Without Suu Kyi, few think the NDF -- or any other opposition group -- could repeat the NLD's landslide victory in 1990, two years after it was formed in response to a popular uprising against the junta that left thousands dead.
The woman known in Burma simply as "The Lady" remains the most powerful symbol of freedom in a country where the army rules with an iron fist.
In June she marked her 65th birthday under house arrest at her lakeside mansion in Rangoon, cut off from the outside world without telephone or Internet access.
So far 40 parties have been allowed to register to stand in the polls, but some are already expressing concerns about conditions for the vote.
One pro-democracy party that is running in the polls said this week it had complained to the election authorities about intimidation of its members by security personnel.
Democratic Party chairman Thu Wai said special branch police were visiting members' homes and asking them for personal information and two photos each.
Another candidate, Phyo Min Thein -- a former political prisoner -- resigned as head of the Union Democratic Party last week and said he would not participate in the election because it would not be free and fair.
The United States voiced concern last month about what it described as "a flawed electoral process" in Burma, which faces strict Western sanctions because of its human rights record.
"We certainly do not have any expectation that what proceeds in Burma (Burma) here will be anything that remotely resembles a free, fair or legitimate result," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said at the time.
In April Burma's prime minister and some 22 other ministers retired from their military posts, in a move seen as converting the leadership to civilian form ahead of the election.
Source: Bangkok Post