BANGKOK – If Myanmar is starring in a Cinderella tale, then this might be the ball.
Great jubilation surrounds an April 1 vote in Myanmar (formerly titled Burma) that could help turn the former outcast state into the next darling of Western investment and aid.
The election, if held in most countries, would be a snoozer. With just 45 seats up for grabs, it will upturn less than 7 percent of Myanmar’s fledgling parliament, which is stacked with military insiders and appointees. It poses no immediate threat to the domineering army, which gave the country its reputation for ghastly jungle warfare and pervasive oppression.
But in long-suffering Myanmar, any potentially legitimate election is cause for celebration. The US, UK and other Western powers have signaled that, if the government can finally pull off a credible day at the polls, they’ll start to unravel their thick tangle of sanctions.
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This gives Myanmar, heavily reliant on neighboring China’s patronage, a chance to take on new markets and emerge from economic obscurity.
“They’re all watching this upcoming ... April Fool’s Day election. It will be a marker or test on the sincerity of the regime,” said Thiha Saw, a prominent journalist based inside Myanmar and founder of the Burmese-language Open News Weekly Journal.
“If it’s free and fair,” he said, “the Western community will start lifting sanctions.”
But that “free and fair” seal of approval hinges on one of the election’s candidates: the idolized dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of an independence hero who helped break Burma loose from British colonial rule in 1948.
An election 22 years ago should have sent Suu Kyi to the prime minister's seat, after her party scored a landslide victory. Instead, the military voided the results. Fearful of her aura — hardcore devotees regard her as a near-messiah — Myanmar’s generals kept her confined under house arrest for most of the last two decades.
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Now, in a twist of fate, the men in charge need her to win. Only with Aung San Suu Kyi’s blessing will Western governments erase their bans on business in Myanmar.
“Some of these generals started thinking, ‘Oh my God, we deal with the Chinese and what do we get? The only way out of this Chinese influence is to get a good relation with Western community,’” Thiha Saw said.
“The key is the lady,” he said.
Myanmar-focused US policymakers tend to regard Aung San Suu Kyi’s word as inviolate. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, who helped craft America’s sanctions, has said lawmakers would await her post-election verdict before eliminating embargoes. So has Democrat Sen. John Kerry, lending rare bipartisan support to this approach.
The sanctions, widely criticized for entrenching poverty, are “hindering the reforms we all want to see,” said Thant Myint-U, a former United Nations official and New York-born Myanmar scholar.
If the voting process is sound, he said, the US should feel obligated to deliver its highly anticipated sanctions rollback. “I not only hope that the elections meet international standards but that the goal posts don’t move again,” he said. “That would be extremely unwise.”
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The election could also lead to a change in protocol: diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, could start saying the word “Myanmar.”
To the current government’s displeasure, US and UK officials still use the colonial name “Burma” in defiance of the military’s abrupt 1989 name swap. (The word “Myanmar,” in the Burmese language, is a more ceremonious form of “Burma.”)
“I think that particular change will happen very soon,” Myint-U said. “Removing sanctions requires action by Congress. But there are things the administration can do quickly and this is one of them.”
Still, regardless of the high stakes, there is evidence that government cadres are jeopardizing Myanmar’s big day with tactics reminiscent of the old regime.
Just two weeks before the election, an executive director with one of the region’s sole homegrown elections monitoring outfits was detained in Yangon and led to a truck with caged windows.
The men who approached her refused to offer their names or ranks. Were they police? Military intelligence? They refused to say.
“They said, ‘We have to deport you. Immediately. You’re on the next flight,’” said Somsri Hananuntasuk, executive director of the Bangkok-based Asian Networks for Free Elections. Before Somsri climbed inside the paddy wagon, she said, a colleague produced a camera and threatened to start filming. The men sheepishly moved her to a sedan.
The monitoring group’s violation: holding a how-to seminar on elections monitoring for about 30 students, activists and others inside a restaurant. They were also chastised for entering Myanmar with tourist visas. According to Somsri, she had requested cooperation from Myanmar’s Election Commission months in advance. The commission never responded, she said, so she flew in with a small team to approach officials in person.
After the incident, a small group of international elections monitors was approved to enter Myanmar just a few days before the election. The US received clearance for only two observers.
But Somsri, echoing similar statements by the US State Department, said so few observers and such scant lead time is inadequate. There has been almost no scrutiny of advance voting, a privilege extended to traveling police officers, soldiers, the elderly and those with leprosy.
The election day scrutiny will fall largely on the Burmese media, still shaking free of government constraints, and the political parties themselves. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, has summoned hundreds of volunteers to watch over polling stations.
The party has already accused the army-backed ruling party of a classic elections fraud tactic: padding the ballot box with dead people. The state has also cancelled voting in parts of Kachin state, where the government is reviled for ongoing strikes against the Kachin ethnic group’s guerilla army.
“The lame excuse is that there’s no security in those areas,” Thiha Saw said. “The (ruling party) would lose there. That’s why they cancelled it.”
Perhaps these problems will cause Western legislators to reverse course and hang tight to sanctions.
But embargoes against Myanmar are no longer en vogue. Lawmakers are apt to tolerate polling booth irregularities as turbulence surrounding a poor country attempting to zoom towards modernity at breakneck speed.
“The central problem is some people see the sanctions as a form of pressure. If you see it that way, well, why not keep them until everything is perfect?” Myint-U said.
“But if you understand that they’re probably holding back the right kind of change, at a critical time, when the country needs as much support as possible,” he said, “then you see they need to be lifted sooner rather than later.”