SAN FRANCISCO -- Thousands in the Bay Area's Burmese community are watching their distant homeland closely this weekend as the Myanmar government conducts its first general election in 20 years, but they are skeptical votes will make any difference in a military-ruled country that has hand-picked candidates.
"The election is not democratic, not free, and not fair," said Albany resident Nyunt Than of the Burmese American Democratic Association. "I think the regime's goal is to fool the international community so there will be an ease of sanctions and international pressure with a civilian-looking government."
Than is among hundreds of activists who planned to hold a vigil in San Francisco on Friday night to rally behind pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel Peace laureate lives under house arrest and is prohibited from participating in the Sunday polls. Suu Kyi's party won the last election, in 1990, but her victory was immediately annulled by military rulers and she was detained at her home for most of the last two decades. Before 1990, the country had not had an election since 1960.
Diplomats, political observers outside Myanmar and many voters predict the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party will come out on top.
Numbers alone appear to make major change impossible. The USDP is fielding 1,112 candidates for the 1,159 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments.
Its closest rival, the National Unity Party with 995 candidates, is backed by supporters of Myanmar's previous military ruler.
The largest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, is contesting just 164 spots.
Because they feel the election is so clearly rigged against them, some democratic advocates have called for a boycott. Others hope at least a few gains by an opposition party will make a difference.
For all the Bay Area Burmese activists rallying in the city tonight, many more will be staying at home but are keenly interested in what happens this weekend, hoping for some change in Myanmar, Than said.
"People are following the news all the time," he said. "They may not be explicitly opposing the regime because of fear -- they have family members there -- but they don't like this regime."
Oppression in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has taken its greatest toll in recent years on the nation's ethnic minority groups, who have flooded out of the country and into United Nations refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh and elsewhere. More than 18,000 Burmese refugees are welcomed from those camps into the United States each year, making them the largest incoming refugee group after Iraqis. Many have moved to the Bay Area within the last five years. Others have lived here for decades.
Alameda County is home to more than 2,000 of the immigrants, according to 2009 census figures, which community members say is probably an underestimation. San Francisco is home to more than 4,000 Burmese immigrants, according to the same census figures.
Berkeley and San Francisco recently passed resolutions condemning the Myanmar government. Such symbolic measures and rallies here can make a difference in Myanmar, where people increasingly learn about affairs outside the country through Facebook and radio broadcasts sent from America and Europe, Than said.
"They are energized, motivated, knowing their fight is not being forgotten," he said. "It's how people of Burma cope with daily struggles and the depressing situation. They turn to these radio stations and can get some peace of mind. I don't think they have given up."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Matt O'Brien at 925-977-8463.