Recent developments in Myanmar indicate that the ruling junta is on a quest for a smokescreen of legitimacy before tightening its grip on the nation in the November 7 election. In the second major reshuffle this year, 70 senior military officers, including the Army's number three, General Thura Shwe Mann, quit their posts and are expected to join the Union Solidarity and Development Party, a proxy political party of the military. The first shuffle, in April, saw the exit of another group of senior military men, including Prime Minister Thein Sein. The moves are intended to give a civilian face to the new parliament, in which a quarter of the seats are reserved for serving military officers. The retired officers are expected to contest the remaining seats with no fear of defeat. By the August 30 deadline for registering candidates, the USDP had filed over 1,000 nominations while another pro-junta formation, the National Unity Party, is fielding over 900 candidates. On the other side, the two main democratic parties — the National Democratic Force, which split from the election-boycotting Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy, and the Democratic Front — have been able to put up fewer than 500 candidates between them. With the registration fee fixed at $500, they did not have the money to nominate any more.
It has been clear from the start that this election — the first in Myanmar since the historic 1990 contest in which Ms Suu Kyi's party emerged victorious but was barred from taking power — is no transition to democracy. New election laws barred Ms Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest, from contesting because of her convictions by the junta. Under the rules, the ensuing boycott by her party led to its dissolution. The military, whether in uniform or in civvies, and pro-military politicians will dominate the 224-seat House of Nationalities and the 440-seat House of Representatives. What is less clear is the role “Senior General” Than Shwe, head of the State Peace and Development Council, the official name for the junta, has reserved for himself. It was believed that he too had stepped down from his post to contest the election as a civilian. But that has turned out to be unfounded. He is likely to continue at the helm even after the election and might quit as military chief only when he is assured of a successor he can trust. But even if he became a civilian ruler, and for all his engagement with the international community, including India, the Myanmar strongman cannot hope to acquire real legitimacy after denying Ms Suu Kyi her rightful place in the country's destiny.