The surface objective of holding elections is to get the United States to end its sanctions. But the deeper goal is to create a drawn-out pseudo-democratic transition – commercial development before political change – that ensures that the generals and their cronies own all of the significant business interests in Burma, reports Dictator Watch.
Burma is holding a by-election on 1 April 2012 for 48 seats in Parliament (just over 10 per cent). International observers view this as a significant benchmark in the country’s supposed reform to democracy. Both the United States and the European Union have ended some of their sanctions, with the promise that more will be eliminated if the election is free and fair.
The judgement of free and fair, however, does not apply only to what happens on election day. It is the entire process that must be appraised, starting with the freedom of the candidates to campaign and to speak their mind. Considering the steps that the military-backed regime has thus far taken, the upcoming election is already fatally flawed.
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been campaigning throughout Burma. On a number of occasions she has been denied permission to use sports stadiums to hold rallies, with the result that she could not speak freely to local constituencies.
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Much more importantly, though, and which few commentators have noticed, the regime continues to enforce the requirement (Union Election Committee notification No. 91/2010, imposed in advance of the fraudulent 2010 national election) that speeches by candidates must be pre-approved, and that they cannot “criticise the constitution, tarnish the image of the state or the military, or harm security”. Among other provisions, candidates have to anticipate the size of the crowds to which they will speak and take responsibility for them. It is not permitted to shout slogans.
(Notification No. 91/2010 has also just been reinforced by an election commission statement on 17 February, which applies the same provisions to radio and TV broadcasts.)
In late January, Daw Suu did in fact criticise the 2008 Constitution, and it was just after this that reminders of the requirement began to appear in pro-regime media. A careful read of this notice makes it clear that candidates cannot criticise or even comment upon, without fear of arrest or being banned from the election, the most important issues facing the country. It is notable that Daw Suu ceased talking about the Constitution after the notification was publicised. (She changed her focus to “jobs”.) It appears that she is censoring herself: bending over backward so as not to anger the regime.
Alternatively, she may have made a tactical retreat, and will speak strongly on these subjects once in Parliament. Only time will tell. (It is difficult to see, though, why the regime will become more tolerant.)
Regardless of what Daw Suu ultimately ends up doing, if the candidates do not have freedom of speech or freedom of assembly with voters, then the election is neither free nor fair. It doers not matter what happens on 1 April. The election is already discredited.
This is not the only condemnation that can be made. Even though there is still a month to go, the regime has taken the following dishonest actions:
After free speech and freedom of assembly, probably the most important factor for an election is freedom of the press. Notwithstanding some minor changes in the application of current press laws, e.g. images of Daw Suu can be shown, nothing material has changed. (Consideration of a new press law has been postponed until after the election.) Burma has an extremely repressive press environment. Journalists, like the candidates, are forbidden from discussing the country’s most important problems, including the Constitution, the on-going civil war and Burma Army atrocities, theft of land from villagers and bribery and corruption in development projects, etc.
And, along with the refusal to allow the use of sports stadiums, there is a growing list of other types of “dirty tricks”. Pro-regime militia in Shan State have ordered villagers to vote for the military party, the USDP. In the Irrawaddy region, local officials have been warned that they will be forced to resign if the USDP does not win. There are also reports of similar threats in the Dawei area, as well as demands by government officials there that the polls themselves be manipulated, i.e., rigged.
Considering all of this, and again with the proviso that there is still one month to go, we can already conclude that the vote will not be free or fair. While it might not be as openly fraudulent as the 2010 general election, and while most if not all NLD candidates will probably win their seats, the process by which this occurs will fail to meet democratic standards.
However, the anti-sanctions crowd, starting with the EU, will no doubt ignore this and instead argue that since the NLD won that is all that is required. The end is important, not the means. It is interesting that the EU has said election monitors are not necessary. This, though, is not linked to a belief that there will be no problems at the polls. Rather, Europe, which is determined that sanctions end and massive development proceed, is itself trying to censor news of poll irregularities that would force it to delay or even terminate its anti-sanctions drive.
Other repression in Burma
The idea that free elections justify ending the sanctions is based on an implied assumption that other conditions in the country are satisfactory. As the following list makes clear, other than ingratiating itself with Daw Suu and the international community, Burma’s military regime is still as tyrannical as ever.
The first issue here is not only freedom of speech for candidates, but for ordinary people as well. The monk Ashin Gambira was detained and is now being charged, reportedly for entering a locked monastery. But U Gambira has been outspoken about the lack of real democracy in Burma, how many monks are still being held as political prisoners, and how monasteries remain closed, now some four and a half years after the Saffron uprising. Similarly, another prominent monk, Ashin Pyinnyar Thiha, has been banned from preaching. Moreover, all of this has been accepted by the elders of Burma’s Buddhist council, the Maha Nayaka, who are blocking the re-ordination of the monks who have been released, and who seem determined to continue their long-standing support of the military regime.
Of course, even though many prominent political prisoners have been released, one thousand or more prisoners of conscience remain. Indeed, it is astonishing that the NLD has disputed the assessed totals of political prisoners tracked by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), which has assiduously worked to identify and help them and their families since 2000. Not every political prisoner is a recognised dissident. Villagers who stand up for their rights and are then arrested are political prisoners as well, as are any individuals who are detained by the regime for any reason other than overt criminal activity.
The fact that Burma has so many political prisoners destroys the argument that the NLD winning a few seats in Parliament will signal that democracy is truly on its way.
The most pressing problem, though, is the continued civil war. It is impossible to accept that the by-election has positive significance when the regime continues to attack the ethnic minorities of the country. Thein Sein ordered the Tatmadaw to cease and desist, but the commanders have refused. Some commentators blame rogue generals – hardliners – saying that a power struggle is underway. More seasoned analysts, though, argue that the entire presentation is a charade. Thein Sein is a hardliner as well: everyone in the regime, including in the Tatmadaw and Parliament, is a hardliner.
All that is occurring is a sophisticated good cop/bad cop presentation, orchestrated by the only person in Burma who has real power, Senior General Than Shwe. The puppet theatre is being used to mollify regime opponents, and to provide support to regime apologists including Asean, the EU, international corporations, biased academics and retired diplomats and business press such as the Financial Times.
The surface objective is to get the US to end its sanctions, but the deeper goal is to create a drawn-out pseudo-democratic transition – commercial development before political change – that ensures that the generals and their cronies own all of the significant business interests in Burma, that such interests can never be seized, and, most critically, that they will never be tried for war crimes and other human rights abuses.
Right now the regime is fighting the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State and northern Shan State, the Shan State Army in southern Shan State, the Karenni Army in Karenni State, and both the Karen National Union and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in Karen State and Tenassarim Division. (Even though the conflict has died down in a few areas, it can re-ignite at any time. The word out of Karen State is that Tatmadaw troops are acting like conquerors, and preparing for future offensives.)
All of this fighting has been accompanied by Burma Army-perpetrated human rights violations. Villages have been bombed and women have been raped, for the latter most recently at the Kachin front and in Karenni State. Many ethnic villagers have been detained. Returning to an earlier point, they are all political prisoners, as is KNU leader Mahn Nyein Maung. Indeed, the women who are known to be being held as sex slaves by Burma Army units at the Kachin front and forced to undergo gang rapes every night are the most persecuted individuals in the entire country. I would argue that their freedom is actually the most important issue in Burma. It is intolerable that anyone would be subjected to such unspeakable torture. The by-election should not even be held until their whereabouts are determined and they are freed, using whatever level of force is required.
The regime has responded to this by saying that it will not allow an inquiry into its atrocities in the ethnic areas and further that its war with the Kachin may last three more years. The former is deplorable (as is the UN’s refusal to investigate), and the latter is ridiculous, considering that it is the Tatmadaw itself which is wholly responsible for the conflict. The generals are basically saying, we will continue to attack the Kachin for at least the next three years, or, more practically, until we defeat the KIA and our Chinese allies can restart the Myitsone Dam.
The only acceptable response is that the Tatmadaw immediately cease its offensives and dismantle all its camps in the ethnic areas. To local villagers, these camps are terrorist outposts, akin to al-Qaeda camps. There is no solution to the conflict other than their complete removal.
Earlier this month, Daw Suu said that Europe and the US should delay their decisions about the sanctions until after the by-election. She should in no way certify the regime’s fraud. Even more, she should stick to the position that the sanctions not be eliminated, or even be reduced, until the Tatmadaw stops its war of aggression against Burma’s ethnic minorities, and frees all the political prisoners.
Contact Roland Watson