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NEW THREATS FROM MONSTER CALLED LeT

by SURENDER KUMAR SHARMA*
American journalist Sebastian Rotella’s twin exposes in ProPublica – America’s botched chances to stop the American Lashkar operative David Coleman Headley behind India’s 9/11 and LeT operational head, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi’s jail life with all the trappings of status guest status, have coincided with the release in India of journalist Wilson John’s new book titled “The Caliphate’s Soldiers: The Lashkar-e-Tayyeba’s Long War”.  Read both works together. It becomes clear that despite investing the title of Man of Peace on the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, and despite intense global scrutiny and sanctions, Lashkar-e-Toiba remains a grave threat to the world than ever before not only to the immediate neighbours of the ‘land of pure’ as Pakistan would like to project itself but to the entire world.

The LeT is more complex and orthodox to the core than even the Haqqani network, with which the Americans are disparate to hold talks or the Taliban with which Pakistan’s establishment is going through the motions of a dialogue for peace in an apparent bid to misguide the ears on the ground and eyes in the sky.

Sebastian and Wilson look at the Lashkar-e-Toiba phenomenon through different prisms; the American’s concern is how and why Pakistan army chief Gen Kayani is disregarding US concerns over LeT particularly Zak-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Headley. The Indian scholar goes beyond the headline and comes up with a scholarly work on LeT to add another feather to his cap as the only thorough bred terrorism expert in this part of the world, who has made the world to sit up and put on the thinking cap.

Though the Americans were loath to admit in public until the recent Mullen outburst, the US-Pakistan relationship has been strained because of LeT and its 2008 Mumbai attacks.  The state guest status that Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi enjoyed ever since he was placed under custody to assuage world opinion did not help matters either. One of the luxuries accorded to Lakhvi is access to the outside world and with a mobile phone he is conducting LeT operations without hindrance. American officials took up the issue with Gen Kayani, and he rejected the request, says Sebastian, quoting a memo addressed to the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and America’s National Security Council.

What about Headley, the half-Pakistani-half American, who is known to have juggled allegiances with militant groups, slipped with effortless ease through American cracks, and manipulated and betrayed wives, friends and allies? Official America is less than honest in sharing the unprecedented confessions he had reportedly made opening a door into the secret world of terrorism and counterterrorism in South Asia and America.

Why Washington acted in the way it did on the issue is linked to its fond hope of arm-twisting Pakistan to do its bidding in North Waziristan to tame the Haqqanis and Afghan and Pakistan Taliban.  The mission was doomed to fail and it had failed with the high-decibel interaction between the US and Pakistan offering a mild distraction.

Sebastian’s investigation report in ProPublica fills some gaps in the narrative by looking at Hedley’s past, particularly his growing up years in Pakistan as a devout Muslim, an enthusiastic jihadi, a young ideologue of Lashkar-e-Toiba and privileged informant for the US drug enforcement.  But real key to understanding the Headley phenomenon comes from looking at the bigger picture which has come to be identified with the LeT phenomenon.   And this is the canvas of Wilson John’s labours. His conclusion is disturbing to say the least as the LeT has been maintaining a very low profile and appears engaged in Dawa (religious preaching) activities through paid workers since the Mumbai attacks.

There are no visible signs of any disruption in the `strategic partnership` of LeT with the Pakistan army and ISI. Nor are there any visible signs of the Pakistani state ‘disengaging with’, and ‘dismantling the terrorist group’, according to the author.  In his assessment, Let remains the world’s most powerful, and resourceful, multi-national terrorist group. It is this what makes terrorist attacks directly carried out by LeT or by its proxies in India and elsewhere in the world a possibility and the threat will remain quite high in the coming years. ‘At least some of these attacks would be spectacular in visibility and impact, and will carry the potential of triggering a military conflict in the region’, Wilson opines.

With over 50,000 armed cadres trained in guerrilla warfare, intelligence gathering, explosives, and sabotage, LeT has a unique leverage vis-a-vis Pakistan military hierarchy. In fact, it has become a reliable military reserve force that can be outsourced work by the Pakistan Army like it did during the Kargil war waged by then army chief Gen Musharraf.

Today, , LeT runs scores of training centres in Khyber Pakhtunkhwah, Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and POK. The objective is to have an office and centre in every district of Pakistan.  LeT spends about $330 per trainee for the daura-e-aam course (basic) and about $1700 per trainee in the more advanced three-month daura-e-khaas course.  Its operational bill is over $5 million a year.

Pakistan Army and ISI reimburse the bill on training camps, and launching of attacks on India and Afghanistan.  Herald magazine from the stable of Pakistan’s most respected and sedate daily, Dawn,  reported in June 2006 that ISI pay off was as much as $50,000 -60000 every month. LeT also manages for a fee the terrorist campaigns of Pakistan Army/ISI and the extremist agenda of anonymous patrons in West Asia.

The other key source of LeT money is Islamic charities across the world, particularly those based in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Inside Pakistan, LeT acts primarily as a dawa group promoting a radical interpretation of Islam much on the lines of its Wahhabi patrons in Saudi Arabia and UAE. This alliance brings the group an enormous amount of petro-dollars as donations   to its madrasas and mosques in Punjab. A 2008 US estimate put this annual munificence at over $100 million a year. Some Pakistani business houses in Punjab have been supporting the group’s terrorist activities by giving money and food articles for the recruits.

Wilson John’s study brings to light another lesser known facet of Lashkar-e-Toiba. The group’s wide-ranging terrorist activities flourish under the guise of various charity organisations and trusts. These are not driven by any domestic agenda but a broader goal of establishing a Caliphate through jihad. It goes about the task in four ways though on a low key.

One it runs recruitment centres out of mosques, book shops, and social-welfare centres sprinkled across Pakistan. Two it taps kinship networks of maulvis, local terrorist/extremist allies, Afghan Jihad associates and its own alumni in South Asia.  Three it recruits bright faces in the West through allied or proxy groups in the home countries.  A former soldier, Sajid Mir, heads a well-funded external recruitment wing at the LeT headquarters.  Four, it has become a terror consultancy with military officials – retired, dismissed or resigned in its ranks.

Aftermath of a terrorist attack in Quetta

By the late 90s, LeT had set up its main training campus at Baitul Mujahideen near Shawai Nala in Muzaffarabad (PoK). The campus was expanded by 2001 to house several hundred recruits at any time. The training syllabus was overhauled under the supervision of former and current ISI and Army officers. Specialised courses were introduced, among them: intelligence gathering; communication technology; sabotage; and managing interrogation.   American authorities are aware of the danger posed by LeT’s global recruitment and consultancy. In-house research carried out by New York University’s Centre on Law and Security has brought into sharp focus how American citizens or residents had travelled to an overseas training camp or war zone since 9/11.

Simultaneously, LeT has been acting as an agent for al Qaeda and the Taliban to train their new cadres, procure weapons, and generate funds and give them protection. Result is that emergence of unparalleled jihadi alumni in as many as 22 countries and the ripples of the wave are being felt across many parts of the world. While it would be difficult to arrive at even a rough estimate of their numbers, it is fair to suggest that it would go beyond a few thousand, according to Wilson Johan. Difficult to disagree with his conclusion after seeing the spread of LeT tentacles through South Asia, and the emergence of double deep cover agents like David Headley in America, which has become the hate symbol for the jihadis of all hues.

Says Wilson: “This ability to infiltrate and implant agents far away from its natural harbour in Pakistan—and its capacity and willingness to train terrorists from different groups and nationalities, even individuals—strongly raises the possibility of LeT or any of its proxies, alumni, or trained cadre, executing a spectacular terrorist attack on the US homeland, or in any other western capital…in other words, LeT today has the operational capability, reach and resources to carry out an attack of the magnitude of 9/11 anywhere in the world”.

What makes LeT a greater threat than other outfits is its BPO service to eliminate other sectarian/extremist/militant groups which take on the Pakistan Army and  run protest campaigns, hold conferences and public meetings for the army, to create and shape public opinion especially against India and the US.  (Syndicate Features)

(* the author is a columnist on South Asian issues and terrorism)

Islamabad fiddles while Karachi burns

By Surinder Kumar Sharma*

Karachi is once again bleeding driven by a complex web of ethnic, political and social tensions. Essentially a turf war between rival political groups and the heavily armed groups linked to them, the current wave of violence is the worst the city has seen since 1995. In fact, history has repeated in Karachi; in the mid-1990s, both Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) had formed the coalition government but their cadres fought in the Karachi streets which led to 3000 deaths. The latest bloodbath has claimed over 1200 lives so far. Though Para-military forces are deployed in the worst affected areas, there is no sign of violence abating.

The trouble started after MQM walked out of the coalition on June 27, 2011 piqued by the PPP led federal government’s decision to postpone elections to the POK assembly from the two Karachi based seats under the refugee quota. Immediately after the split, battles erupted between “hard men” from both sides on the streets of Karachi pushing the City of Lights as Karachi is known to the verge of total chaos. To top it all, the local government system that was implemented by former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1979, and the police system engineered by Lord Charles Canning, the first Viceroy of India, in 1861 were restored in the Sindh province apparently to make it difficult for MQM to function in Karachi, its traditional stronghold, and in the hope that such a move will help PPP consolidate votes in time for the general elections in 2014. Simultaneously, PPP formed an alliance with the erstwhile King’s party, Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) or PML (Q) in Punjab.

Though outwardly courageous and tactically smart, these moves reflect a deep sense of desperation instead of political confidence within PPP. For two reasons.

Firstly, although restoration of the old Commissionerate system and the Police Act of 1861 might hand PPP the levers of control over Karachi and undercut MQM’s influence; it will not help the party gain much political legitimacy to expand its vote bank in Karachi. If anything, it will further alienate the people of Karachi from participatory politics. This is so because the Commissionerate system divides the city into five districts – Karachi East, Karachi South, Karachi West, Karachi Central and Malir that will be run by Deputy Commissioners who run the show in some sort of a sub-provincial level of government. As a result, the system of district Nazims (Mayors) being responsible to elected local officials stands abolished in favour of a system that anoints federal bureaucrats from the powerful District Management Group (DMG) to rule the districts. In contrast to this, the repealed Police Ordinance 2002 and the Local Governance Ordinance 2001 gave local elected representatives higher degree of autonomy to run the city as a single unit without much interference from the provincial government.

All this basically means that the PPP will be able to appoint its own chosen nominees in Karachi directly from Islamabad and thus pump prime its electoral chances. But PPP’s turf area is rural Sindh and not urban Sindh, certainly not the Karachi city of 18 million people. So much so, PPP is unlikely to gain from its deliberate acts of undermining democracy in order to quench its thirst for victory at the 2014 ballot. Yes, it does get the satisfaction for having settled scores with the MQM, which is determined to strike back with full vengeance. It means Karachi will bleed profusely.

Secondly, PPP has no support base in Punjab, despite its alliance with the PML –Q, whereas the PML-Nawaz has a strong presence across the province with a solid vote bank.  PML-N leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is clamoring for early elections. He is demanding polls before March 2012 itself (instead of 2014). If his wish gets fulfilled (the possibility cannot be ruled out), the PPP might have to pack its bags two years earlier than scheduled. Already, Sharif has  opened doors of his party to estranged former allies as well as Islamist rivals like the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and of course, the MQM.

It is not a coincidence that Punjab Senator Ishaq Dar of the PML (N) rushed to Karachi and Shahbaz Sharif went to London to meet Altaf Hussain, MQM leader-in-exile, to bring MQM in Nawaz’s fold. Also, in spite of the “tough” and “religious” sounds being made by Munawar Hussain of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the possibility of these parties getting along the PML (N) simply to kick the PPP-led government out, is very much a possibility. Add to this the discontent and alienation being felt by the masses and the fact that the credentials of PPP to govern effectively have taken a severe dip over the last three years.

It is these unfolding developments on the national scene that are complicating the tangled Karachi web. Hundred of workers or sympathizers of PPP, MQM and Awami National Party (ANP) have become victims of targeted killings in the city, which is also home to terrorist outfits of all hues. As The Economist (London-August 27) says, “a grisly new feature of the carnage in Karachi is that people are not just being shot.  They are being abducted and tortured; then their bullet ridden bodies are dumped in socks and left in alleyways and gutters. Victims’ limbs, genitals and heads are often severed. Tortured cells operate across Karachi.  The butchery is filmed on mobile phones and passed around, spreading the terror further.”

In the immediate to short run, the looser is the Pakistani exchequer. Karachi contributes 70 percent of the Pakistan government’s revenue, and 95 percent of the Sindh provincial government. As much as 80 percent of Pakistan’s exports pass through Karachi port.  A shut down of the city due to violence translates into a loss of over two billion (Pakistani) rupees in terms of customs duty and other levies in a single day.

Tracing the origin of the recent killings, Pakistan columnist Shaheryar Mirza said “since 2007, thousands of people have entered Karachi, particularly arriving from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province from Afghanistan. Another factor impacting the situation in Karachi is the influx of Taliban militants which has increased over the years.  The ANP says that its workers are being targeted by MQM – a charge denied by MQM, which claims that the Taliban militants among the Pashtun population are targeting its (MQM) activists in a bid to extend their control of the city. Interior Minister Rehman Malik has claimed that peace will be restored within two days; MQM Chief Altaf Hussain has spoken of genocide, of discrimination against Mohajirs and asked the people of Karachi to store the ration for a month.  Blaming the government for the frequent breakdown of law and order in Karachi, he said that he would ask the Pakistan President, the PM and CM of Sindh to stop ‘official patronization of Liyari gang, land mafia and criminal elements’. It appears that history has repeated in Karachi where as in the mid-1990s, both PPP and MQM formed the coalition government but they fought in the Karachi streets which led to the killing of 3000 people during ‘Operation Clean-up’”.

What is happening now is that militants belonging to ANP and other Liyari gangs as also Haqiqi groups which were routed in the 1990s are trying to raise their head, courtesy the PPP government. Since the presence of Taliban militants is acknowledged by the rulers themselves, Karachi runs the greatest risk of Talibanisation. And as Professor Antiol Liven, of King’s College, London, warns in his just released book titled ‘Pakistan A Hard Country’, the Taliban terrorism will provoke the MQM into counter-attacks which will then trigger an all-out struggle, “in which the Taliban will replace the ANP as leaders of the local Pathans, and the MQM will use this Talibanisation as an excuse to reduce the Pathans to a completely subordinate status”.

Several other factors are also at play accentuating the problems of Karachi and the miseries of PPP. Rapidly deteriorating Pakistan-US relations, confrontation with the judiciary over various cases with a Supreme Court that is more confident and independent in its functioning than before, heightened tensions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and along the Durand Line, rising terrorist attacks all over the country with the army losing its charm among people as well as its own officers after PNS Mehran attacks and the US raid in Abbottabad, severe energy crunch,, unemployment and food inflation and a host of other factors will not make it any easy for the already cornered PPP-led government to survive the political storm in waiting. Just a gentle push from behind the scenes by the Kayani army will unsettle the PPP and make it stumble and lose the crown.

*The writer is a columnist on South Asian Affairs

On the way to Myanmar’s democracy Nirvana

By Malladi Rama Rao

Myanmar Parliament Building

Myanmar goes to polls on November 7 to elect its new law makers and new government, according to the brief announcement carried on the state radio and TV on Friday, Aug 13. The junta describes the one-day ballot as the final step in the roadmap to democracy, which is a very elaborate seven stage plan of Senior General Than Shwe to establish ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ in the country.

How far the forthcoming one-day election will be free and fair is any body’s guess. Political parties are denied breathing time to put their act together for contesting the election. They have been asked to file nominations between Aug 16 and 30. That means they are given just 18 days to complete their home work for contesting the 400-member parliament. Sept. 3 is set as deadline for withdrawal of nominations.

Myanmar politicians cannot claim that they are taken unawares by the Election Commission’s decision. The junta has been talking about elections for a long while, and has gone through several motions which are in effect nothing but clearing the decks for sartorial change by the prime minister and several of his colleagues. In fact, many candidates in the fray will be military officers, who have just doffed off their uniform.

“Every military ruler has a craving for legitimacy, and at some point of time, whether out of own interest or under external pressure, holds elections. Historically, most such elections do not usher in an unadulterated democracy. But quite too often, these regimented elections, which, in some countries saw the GHQ doubling up as the EC and Vote Counting Centre, paved the way over time to a semblance of democracy the world has come to accept. The developments in Myanmar fall into a familiar pattern, though with hope and cynicism in equal measure- hope that ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ is at best a half-way measure; cynicism that the ballot will herald a sartorial change from colourful uniform to three-piece suits with stripes,” says the writer.
This article first appeared on www.poreg.org

This is one reason why the criticism against the forthcoming elections rings hollow. Whatever be its other failings the Than Shwe regime did not hide its plans and planks from public view; these are designed from the word go to keep out Aung San Suu Kyi. She is not only barred from contesting elections but even the ballot is scheduled in such a way that it takes place a week before she ends her latest house arrest. If the arrest has been cited as the reason for her disqualification, the poll date is quarantined from her physical presence during the campaign period. The fact that her late husband was a foreigner (Britisher) also prohibits her from running for elections.

The election held in 1990 saw Aung San Suu Kyi lead her party, National League for Democracy, to victory securing 392 of the 492 seats on offer. But neither she nor her colleagues enjoyed the fruits of the landslide win. And the country remained under military rule. It was because the electoral outcome had effectively ruled out any role for the army in the national affairs.

The voting in the November election will not lead to limitations on the army, which is in the driver’s seat for five decades. The government to be formed will be effectively in the hands of serving and retired military officers.

The constitution adopted in 2008 expressly barred civilians from key ministries like defence, interior affairs and justice. And, created National Defence and Security Council, headed by the commander- in – chief, with powers to overrule the civilian government. The statute makes two other stipulations – one 25 per cent of parliamentary seats go to the military; two there can be no constitutional amendment unless more than 75 per cent of lawmakers give consent. Put mildly, the statute has taken every care to insulate the military from the civilian interference.

So, to crib that the election will not be free and fair is neither here nor there. Nor is the lament voiced by Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma that the junta was moving forward to hold the “sham election.” And the concern of the State Department spokesman, Noel Clay, “We remain concerned about the lack of a level playing field for opposition parties and the oppressive political environment in Burma”.

There is merit, nonetheless, in the criticism that the United States, European Union and the United Nations have failed to exercise “effective pressure” on the junta. Myanmar expatriates living in ASEAN member-states, Australia and the US have welded together as a powerful force. Naturally, they feel badly let down at a crucial time in their country’s history.

Aung Din echoed their mood, when he said, ‘The generals in Burma are now confident that the international community can’t and won’t do anything beyond issuing statements to stop their crimes against humanity and plan to build a permanent military dictatorship in the country’.

The US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell made a two-day visit to Myanmar in May. After his talks in Yangon, he said he was “profoundly disappointed” over the preparations for the election. And added, “What we have seen to date leads us to believe that these elections will lack international legitimacy”.

From these remarks it is clear that Campbell had some inkling into the preparations for Nov 7 poll. If so, the question is, did he persuade the Junta to follow the universally accepted norms for democracy? Did he offer any incentives and speak of disincentives. The American preferred to be economical in his post-Yangon visit interaction with the media. So, we donot know what had exactly transpired during the visit.

In hindsight, it may be said, though in a very limited sense, that the West had not served the interests of Myanmar people and of democracy by refusing to enter into a dialogue with the junta for a fairly long time. Criticism that the institutions of law are weak and that there are no checks and balances in the country is one thing, and not helping a nation that is steeped in poverty despite nature’s bounty is another.

Whether it is the US, EU or the UN and their various organisations, they all appeared satisfied at least in the initial days with the backing to the pro-democracy campaigners stationed outside the Myanmar borders. By ignoring the people and their plight and steadfastly refusing to enter into a dialogue with the junta, the West has neither served its cause nor of the people of Myanmar.

For Washington or London or Brussels, talking to generals is not a new thing. They have always pampered the leaders in uniform, often at the cost of democratically elected leaders in the neighbourhood all across the globe in countries that appeared as important to serve their geo-political and strategic interests. Obviously, Myanmar did not fit that bill till recently, and hence its junta and people were allowed to fend for themselves.

ASEAN has every reason to shun Myanmar junta. Yet, the ten-nation grouping did not refuse to open the doors to Than Swe and his colleagues. What is more this most successful regional group did not wait to be influenced in its interaction with Myanmar by the actions of China. The west should have taken a cue from ASEAN, which has become a benchmark in regional cooperation. .

It was only last year that the Obama administration initiated a policy of re-engagement with Myanmar after years of trying to isolate the country. A number of visits by high-level American officials followed. But the junta made no concessions that Washington considered as high point on the road to democracy. And the generals’ decision to press ahead with the vote makes this amply clear.

Admittedly, the forthcoming election is a means to legitimize the military power and give it the trappings of civilian rule. Put differently, the election gives democratic gloss to the junta regime. The timing of the election, the short campaign period and the ban on chanting, marching or saying anything at rallies that could tarnish the country’s image (in other words criticism of the government) are nothing less than a calculated political ambush as a Burmese commentator in exile, Win Tin, says.

So much so, should there be a poll boycott, as suggested by Aung San Sui Kyi to her NLD cadres. It will be tempting to endorse her stand but larger interests of democracy and the policy of isolation so resolutely followed by the West offer compelling reasons to welcome the election. Howsoever deeply flawed an election is, it always represents the best chance of bringing about a change even haltingly.

Democracy is never picture perfect, anywhere. There are so many models in vogue today, each with its own trademark flaws. Even, the greatest democracy, the United States doesn’t have a text book perfect election system and vote counting methods, as Al Gore will testify to the discomfort of George Bush junior. The Westminster model is not as hollowed as it is made out to be, going by the scandals that surfaced during Prime Minister Brown’s term.

Any how there is no single model of democracy even in the Asian region – there is the Rajapaksa model, which is one –family rule that relies on the police and bureaucracy rather than the elected lawmakers; there is the Pakistani model which is another name for military dictatorship through the backdoor; the Malaysian model, which defies a straightjacket definition; the Afghanistan model of tribal jirgas that decide the course of social and government interaction’, and above all, the Indian model that is both federal and unitary in character with a three-tier elected democratic institutions in the provinces.

The point is each country has to evolve and adopt a democratic system based on its own core values and learning from others’ experience. From a Zia to Musharraf and from an Ershad to a Mugabwe, every dictator has a craving for legitimacy, and at some point of time, whether out of own interest or under external pressure, holds elections.

Historically, most such elections do not usher in an unadulterated democracy. But quite too often, these regimented elections, which, in some countries saw the General Headquarters doubling up as the proxy Election Commission and Vote Counting Centre, paved the way over time to a semblance of democracy the world has come to accept. The developments in Myanmar fall into a familiar pattern.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s call to NLD to boycott the election deserves to be respected. So is the decision of Democratic Party chairman Thu Wai, who is upset that special branch police were visiting the homes of his cadres for personal information and two photos each. By the same token, the resolve of some colleagues of Aung San Suu Kyi to enter the fray as the National Democratic Force deserves to be treated with respect. Obviously, these leaders believe in the age old dictum that not retreat into a shell, but constant engagement with the rulers is the best way out to reach the cherished goal.

By the last official count, at least 40 parties have registered to join the elections. Only five of them had fought the 1990 general election. Amongst the new parties, the most prominent is the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is the junta’s platform, and, therefore, pampered with state money and special privileges. Most other parties represent ethnic minority groups with local agendas.

It is unclear how many of the country’s marginalized ethnic minorities will take part in the ballot. Myanmar is home to 135 officially recognized minorities, who make up 40 percent of the population of 50 million. Many of these ethnic groups lead what may be loosely called an autonomous existence as adversaries of the government in Yangon. .

The Election Commission has designated one parliamentary constituency for each ethnic minority in each of the seven regions and seven states. Sagaing, Tanintharyi, Bago, Magway, Ayeyawaddy, Yangon and Mandalay are the regions; Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and Chin are the states under the new constitution. The election law reads: the region or state parliament will be made up of two representatives from each township in the region or state with each representative elected from each ethnic minority determined by the authorities as having a population which constitutes 0.1 percent and above of the population of the union. The law reserves one-third of the total number of parliamentary seats for the military personnel nominated by the commander-in-chief of the defense services in the region or state parliamentary election.

In March this year, State Peace Development Council, the ruling junta passed a set of five electoral laws, namely Union Election Commission Law, Political Parties Registration Law, People’s Parliament Election Law, Nationalities Parliament Election Law and Region or State Parliament Election Law. As a follow-up, the SPDC formed a 17-member Union Election Commission led by U-Thein-Soe. On its part, the poll body has designated 330 constituencies for the House of Representatives and 12 constituencies for the House of Nationalities in the multi-party mode.

By all accounts, Myanmar is entering an unchartered territory with hope and cynicism in equal measure – hope that ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ an euphemism for ‘controlled’ democracy is at best a half-way measure; cynicism that the ballot will herald a sartorial change with colourful uniform giving place to three-piece suits with stripes.

Both schools have a point as they stand at the threshold of a new dawn. The jury is still out.