BANGKOK // On Sunday, Myanmar will hold its first elections in 20 years. The country's charismatic pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, will not be among those casting a ballot as she remains under house arrest in her lakeside residence in Yangon, where she has spent 15 of the past 21 years.
Recently senior government officials have been hinting that she may be released in the coming weeks when her current term of detention expires. But most people in Myanmar remain sceptical.
"Only when Aung San Suu Kyi is released will there be true democracy," a young university student, Aung Win, said. "So I won't be voting in these sham elections." "This is not my election," said Soe Maung, a taxi driver in Yangon. "This is the military's election."
In May 1990, two years after the junta had seized power in a bloody coup, the National League for Democracy (NLD) convincingly won the elections. With its ally, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, they took more than 80 per cent of the seats. This time neither of the parties is competing as they refused to re-register as a political party earlier this year and are effectively barred from participating in the polls.
"How can we accept the elections when our leader is not free," U Tin Oo, the deputy leader of the NLD, said recently. "We cannot field candidates as that would mean accepting the fraudulent constitution that the junta has forced on us while keeping us out of the drafting process," another senior NLD leader said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press.
Under the current constitution, 25 per cent of the seats in the two houses of parliament are reserved for serving soldiers. The president has to have a military background and the commander-in-chief reserves the right to dismiss the parliament if it is felt to be endangering national security.
Twenty years ago people came out in droves, including soldiers and their wives, to vote. "At that time NLD was not really a party," Ms Suu Kyi said in a telephone interview after her release in July 1995. "It was more of a movement that represented the people's aspirations for a freer, fairer and democratic government."
But there is no doubt that they also came to vote for Ms Suu Kyi because she had dared to stand up to the generals. For most people, her name and that of the NLD were synomous.
Ms Suu Kyi is the daughter of General Aung San, an independence hero and the founder of the Burmse army. He had led the liberation struggle against the British, but was assassinated along with several other leading politicians in 1947.
Ms Suu Kyi was hurled into the front line of the country's democracy movement after she arrived in Myanmar in 1987 from the UK, to look after her sick mother, Daw Khin Kyi. While in Oxford, England, she was a housewife married to the British don and Tibetan scholar Michael Aris, who died of leukaemia in 1999.
She soon proved to be a major thorn in the side of the country's military rulers. She was arrested in July 1989 after she began campaigning. Authorities were concerned about the support she was attracting and her criticism of the former military despot, Gen Ne Win, who had seized power in 1962 and surprisingly stood down in 1988 in the face of months of pro-democracy demonstrations that had brought the country to virtual standstill.
"She posed a constant challenge to the military junta," Justin Wintle, a British academic and biographer of Aung San Suu Kyi said in an interview. "She was articulate, intelligent and energetic."
Ms Suu Kyi, now in her sixties, still represents the main opposition to the military rule. She continues to advocate peaceful protest.
She and the NLD are urging a boycott of the elections, which has angered the top generals. The public is being warned that anyone who boycotts the vote will be dealt with harshly. Several university students have been sentenced to three years in jail for handing out pamphlets promoting the boycott.
Internationally, the elections are also being seen as a means of prolonging military rule. Even Myanmar's allies and neighbours find the elections less than credible.
"The elections are a farce," the Philippine foreign secretary, Albert Romulo, said in an interview between meetings at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Hanoi last weekend. "It certainly is not inclusive - as UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has demanded - without opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi being allowed to run. It is not free or fair with her party, which won more than 80 per cent of the seats in the 1990 elections, being effectively barred."
"What happens after the elections may be more critical than the polls themselves," said Surin Pitsuwan, the general secretary of Asean. "There will be opportunities, openings and new space after the polls," he said in an interview at the end of the summit.
What is certain is that Ms Suu Kyi detention will expire and the new government will not be able to ignore her.