By Martin Petty
BANGKOK - Myanmar's top generals will attend the annual Armed Forces Day parade on Saturday for the final time as the country's leaders as the military prepares to hand over power to an elected civilian government.
The parade will be led by reclusive junta strongman Than Shwe, who says the military top brass will become civilians after this year's long-awaited election. Few, however, believe the military will really transfer power.
Why is Myanmar holding elections?
Sanctions have crippled the resource-rich country, which was the world's top rice exporter when it won independence from Britain in 1948 after more than 120 years of colonial rule.
Although Asian trade is picking up, particularly with China, the regime's refusal to release political prisoners and halt human rights abuses have made it a pariah in the West.
Analysts say Myanmar wants to join the global economy and attract investment. The generals know they must give up power - nominally at least - to achieve this, but they appear to believe the military is the only institution capable of running the country.
What do we know about the polls?
No date has been set for the elections but the generals have unveiled laws governing how the vote will be conducted and who can stand. An election commission comprising people "prominent and of good reputation" has been appointed.
Analysts and Western diplomats believe the junta is holding out on a date to try to get rebellious ethnic groups to take part in the process in an effort to show the country is united. The participation of the big ethnic groups is unlikely.
There is wide speculation the vote will take place sometime in October on a date deemed auspicious to the notoriously superstitious generals.
Who will hold power?
A constitution approved in a disputed 2008 referendum stipulates Myanmar will be run by an elected civilian government, but key ministries such as justice, defence and the interior will be under the control of the military, which will also be granted a quarter of the 440 seats in parliament.
The army commander will remain the country's most powerful figure, senior to an elected president, able to appoint key ministers and with authority to assume power "in times of emergency".
Than Shwe has said his inner circle of army generals will fade from the political scene, but analysts expect them or their proxies to continue to pull the strings.
Than Shwe and Maung Aye, another ageing strongman, will probably retire and hand power to army proteges who will ensure they are insulated from any future recriminations. Junta number three Thura Shwe Mann, 62, is widely tipped to take the top post.
Why is Aung San Suu Kyi sidelined?
The hugely popular Suu Kyi, daughter of independence hero Aung San, remains the biggest threat to the military. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won the 1990 poll in a landslide, a result the regime ignored and recently annulled.
Because of her rousing speeches, ability to mobilise pro-democracy activists and popular appeal among more than a dozen armed ethnic groups who deeply resent the Burmese generals, the junta has kept her in detention for 15 of the past 21 years.
It is unlikely she will be freed before the polls, for fear of her influence on the public.
Detained or not, she is unable to run because her late husband was a foreigner, and because of the British citizenship of her children and her criminal record.
Who will be allowed to take part?
The junta recognises 10 political parties. The NLD, the National Unity Party and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy were the top three in the 1990 polls. The NLD plans to announce on March 29 if it will run or not.
There are divisions inside the NLD between those who reject the constitution and modernisers who believe a boycott could render the NLD a spent force. Suu Kyi said on March 23 she wouldn't dream of registering the NLD for the elections, although she also said the decision was not hers to make.
The junta will probably have its own nominee parties fronted by cronies and civilian proxies. With more than 2,000 political activists in prison - and barred from running even if released - the polls will inevitably be far from inclusive.
Two new parties have registered so far, both of them seen as close to the junta. They are the 88 Generation Students of the Union of Myanmar (GSUM) and the Union of Myanmar National Political Force (UMNPF).
Will the West maintain sanctions?
Due to the junta's refusal to free political prisoners and the restrictive election laws, the West is unlikely to lift sanctions, even if the vote is deemed free and fair.
But many pro-democracy advocates say sanctions have been counterproductive, serving only to impoverish the people and make the junta more hidebound. An election that brings change without a full transition to democracy would sharpen the debate over whether sanctions should be removed.
Engagement by Asian neighbours, especially on trade, has done nothing to loosen the junta's grip on power.