RANGOON — In 2010, several months before the then-military junta held the first general elections in Burma in 20 years, Kyaw Thura, a resident of Rangoon’s Panzudaung Township, noticed there was a sudden flurry of activity on the main road in his neighborhood.
The potholed Ye Gyaw Road between the crumbling buildings of downtown Rangoon was being repaired at a rapid pace after many years of neglect by authorities. When it was completed to a concrete surface road several weeks later a sign went up to let residents know who to thank for the improvement: the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the political party of the junta.
“I couldn’t help wondering at that time why the USDP urgently repaired the road so soon before the elections, and why not before. I really questioned their intentions,” said Kyaw Thura, 39.
Since 2007, green signs bearing a sitting lion—the logo of the USDP and its predecessor, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA)—had been springing up next to repaired roads in Rangoon. In 2010, the USDP initiative was ramped up across Burma’s biggest city, which had been neglected at the expense of the junta’s gleaming new capital Naypyidaw for years.
Le Le Win Swe, a USDP lawmaker from Tamwe Township, where some 60 roads were repaired between 2008 and 2010, insisted, however, that the activities had not been an attempt to influence voters during the polls at the time.
“The party paid for the cost of building roads in other areas, especially in 2010, and the money came from party funds. We just built them as people need better roads,” she said.
Perhaps not confident of a good result based on the popularity of its road projects in Rangoon alone, the junta rigged the 2010 elections, which were boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and condemned by the international community as flawed. Only a few smal opposition parties, such as the National Democratic Force, and a number of ethnic parties contested the elections alongside the USDP.
The results gave the USDP, which was formed by ex-junta members shortly before the 2010 elections, a clear victory and put it firmly in power as it began the political reform process under President Thein Sein a year later under the junta’s seven-step “roadmap to discipline-flourishing democracy.”
It’s unclear how widespread the road repairs projects were ahead of the 2010 vote and contacted USDP members were tightlipped when asked whether the party is deploying similar tactics ahead of the 2015 elections, which are supposed to be Burma’s first free and fair vote since 1990. That year, the NLD won in a landslide, but the result was ignored by the military regime.
Yan Myo Thein, an independent political commentator, said the USDP had been trying to take a more “public-centered approach” since the 2010 campaign, such as providing free health care services in some townships in Rangoon and continuing to support road repairs.
“In 2010, the road-building could be regarded as part of their campaign, as everybody knows, to boost public support,” he said. “That kind of public-centered approaches will become more intense [ahead of the 2015 elections]. They are likely to prepare for it more systematically than in 2010 as they now they have to face their rival, the NLD.”
In recent years, Rangoon residents trying to improve the dilapidated infrastructure in their neighborhoods have been provided support by local USDP branches, which have offered to fill funding shortfalls if residents also make an effort to collect money for the improvement they desire.
Yan Myo Thein said, however, that the one-off public projects would do little to significantly boost the popularity of the USDP, which is still widely viewed as the party of the detested former regime. “It’s true that the USDP has been trying to get closer to the people, but in terms of public support they still cannot match the NLD,” he said.
Even during the flawed 2010 elections the road-building program failed to impress residents in Panzudaung Township, according to Kyaw Thura.
Asked whether USDP representative and former Myanmar Times co-owner Tin Tun Oo won the seat he was contesting there, Kyaw Thura laughed and said: “No, he lost to his rival from the National Democratic Force!”