BANGKOK (Reuters) - Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is almost certain to play no part in Myanmar’s multi-party elections next year after being confined to house detention for 18 months for breaking a security law.
Critics believe Myanmar’s military rulers used the trial to prevent her from campaigning ahead of the elections, which are the first since 1990, when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won in a landslide but never allowed to rule.
The government says the election will be the final stage of its seven-step democratic “road map”.
Sanctions have crippled the country’s economy and he regime’s refusal to carry out reforms, release political prisoners and halt human rights abuses have made it an international pariah that the West refuses to do business with.
Analysts say Myanmar wants to be a part of the international community and boost trade, but the generals know they will have to relinquish power to achieve this.
They are hoping the elections will legitimize the regime in the eyes of the international community -- particularly India, China and Thailand -- whose vital trade keeps the country afloat.
No timeframe has been decided and much remains to be done.
The generals have yet to draft election laws that will detail how the vote will be conducted and who can stand. No election commission has been appointed to oversee the polls.
The junta has rejected international offers of monitors as interference in its affairs.
The charismatic and hugely popular Suu Kyi, daughter of independence hero Aung San, remains the biggest threat to the military’s grip on power, as was shown when her NLD party won 392 of the 485 parliamentary seats in the 1990 vote.
Because of her rousing speeches and her ability to mobilize tens of thousands of people for pro-democracy rallies, the regime has kept her under lock and key for 14 of the past 20 years.
“They are extremely afraid of Suu Kyi and the influence she has on the people, especially in the lead-up to the elections,” said Debbie Stothard from the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma.
A new constitution, drafted mainly by military officers and civil servants, was approved in a referendum last year and aims to turn Myanmar into a “discipline-flourishing democracy”, led by a civilian government elected by the people.
Junta supremo Than Shwe said last year the military had a “sincere aim of developing the country without any craving for power”. Few are convinced.
A quarter of the 440 seats in parliament will go to the military. Retired generals can take additional seats not included in the military’s 25 percent quota.
The constitution also states that the army commander-in-chief will remain the country’s most powerful figure, able to tear up the charter, appoint key ministers and take overall power “in times of emergency”.
The regime recognizes 10 political parties, but it is not yet known how many plan to take part. The NLD, the National Unity Party, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy -- the top three performers in the 1990 polls -- are expected to run again.
The NLD, which has been at the forefront of Myanmar’s pro-democracy struggle, has yet to confirm it will take part. Insiders say it is divided between older members who reject the polls and others who are willing to give them a chance.
What is not in doubt is that Suu Kyi will not be running for office. Regardless of the guilty verdict, her marriage to a foreigner -- British academic Michael Aris, who died in 1999 -- and British citizenship of her children means she cannot stand.
Analysts say the junta will likely form its own nominee parties fronted by civilian proxies. With more than 2,000 activists and political opponents serving prison terms, the polls will be far from inclusive.
Than Shwe recently told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the next time he visited Myanmar, he and his inner circle of army generals would all be civilians.
But few are convinced the regime’s top brass will relinquish power. Analysts expect the men in green will still pull the strings, with the “road map” merely a blueprint for the army to legitimize the grip on power it has held since a 1962 coup.
“There won’t be change of any real substance, just a lot fewer people around in military uniform,” said Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to Thailand, now a Myanmar analyst.
“It’s not so much the election that’s important, more the uncertainty about what happens after it.” (Editing by Alan Raybould and Bill Tarrant)