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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 72

Burma's Referendum: A Fruitless Attempt of the Military Junta

By Zin Linn

Bangkok 16 April ( People of Burma have been disappointed with the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari, with SG because he has failed to call for the Security Council action on Burma and with Gambari because he has been misleading the world body in support of the undisciplined military regime.

On 31 March, Members of Parliament elected in the 1990 General Elections but prevented from taking office by the country's junta issued an appeal to lawmakers all over the world. Their message was: reject the military-ordained new constitution of Burma. The appeal signed by 14 MPs 'elect' said both Ban Ki-moon and Ibrahim Gambari have failed in the mission expected of them. "We expected them to pressurise the Junta into yielding for national reconciliation but their efforts are unproductive". About the Security Council also the appeal had some harsh comment. "This highest authoritative body of the United Nations has failed to take an effective and timely action to stop one-sided acts of the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) and to facilitate real national reconciliation and democratization in Burma".

Four days earlier, on March 27, marking the 63rd Armed Forces Day, Senior General Than Shwe (75), made a 15-minute nationwide radio and television speech giving hint of 'May Referendum' on the draft constitution but did not state when the new statute would be available for public scrutiny. He was not also honourably silent on the dates for the referendum. Indications are that the referendum will take place in May. He however said that the civilians would take the reins of government after elections in 2010, once a constitution is approved giving broad powers to the military.

The constitution is a part of the junta's seven-step roadmap to democracy. It emerged out of the National Convention, which was a farce in itself. Opponents of the regime, such as the National League for Democracy, led by the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, were excluded from the drafting process, which took 14 years.

Critics have termed the new statute as a trick to consolidate the military's supremacy. Nonetheless, Year 2008 may become an important watershed for the democracy movement in Burma because of the farcical Referendum. For the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), legitimacy to the Constitution is a priority..

The Junta is going out of its way to court the support of ASEAN and other neighbouring countries especially China and India for its constitutional makeover. At the same time it is riding roughshod over the National League for Democracy (NLD) which is the only challenger to its supremacy at home. Aung San Suu Kyi will not be allowed to contest in the elections scheduled for 2010, the Junta made it clear already.

On May 27, the Burma's opposition groups will observe the 18th anniversary of NLD's significant victory in the 1990 General Elections. NLD had won 392 of the 485 seats on offer in Parliament. NLD allies, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) won 23 seats and the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) bagged 11 seats in what was certainly one of the free and fair elections that had taken place in the South-East Asia region. But, the SPDC's authoritative generals, especially Sen. Gen. Than Shwe, adamantly refuse to honour the 1990 Elections' result. Than Shwe is unwilling even to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi.

A constitution is a contract between the people and the government of a nation. Only a statute that is willingly accepted by the people will endure the test of time. The National League for Democracy believes that if genuine multi-party democracy is to be established in Burma, a constitution based on democratic principles is an absolute necessity.

The NLD was set up to usher in a genuine democratic system which lives up to the aspirations of the people and contributes to building a strong Union of Burma. It believes that the state derives its power from the people. And a democratic nation must have the rule of law and a constitution that guarantees human rights, and basic freedoms - of worship, expression and association. Moreover, the NLD believes that the foundation for a strong, lasting and prosperous union has to be laid through a national convention where all the ethnic groups of Burma are represented and decide collectively the destiny of the nation. The landslide victory in 1990 was a public endorsement of what all the NLD has come to stand for.

Unfortunately, SPDC and its earlier incarnation, State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) practiced means fair and foul to undo the electoral verdict. First, it invalidated the result, and then it sacked the MPs. They were also disqualified them from standing for elections again. When the MPs resisted pressure to resign, false cases were slapped and they were thrown into jail. Once this exercise was complete and 200 members were eased out, the Junta said "Parliament is not being constituted as we don't have enough elected members".

Approximately 100 of the 426 elected MPs passed away in the past 18 years. Three MPs died in police custody. Tin Maung Win, NLD MP of Khayan Constituency (1), Rangoon Division, passed away on January18, 1991 in the notorious Insein Prison. Hla Than from Coco Islands Constituency (also Rangoon Division) died on August 2, 1996 at the guard ward in Rangoon General Hospital. Saw Win (a.k.a) Kyaw Zaw Lin, who had won Htee Lin Constituency (Magwe Division) on Aug 7, 1998 in Thayawaddy Prison.

Three law makers passed away soon after their release from jail. Kyaw Min of Bassein West Constituency (Irrawaddy Division), died of liver cirrhosis on July1, 1999 in Rangoon General Hospital. San San Win, who represents the Ahlon Constituency (Rangoon Division), passed away in 2000 and Hla Maung who had won Kyainseikkyi seat from Karen State died November 27, 2003.

Win Ko who represented Ye Oo Constituency (Sagaing Division), was assassinated in Kunming, China, on Nov 1, 1992 and Hla Pe, (Pyaw Bwe Constituency, Mandalay Division), was eliminated on the outskirts of Bangkok on June 16, 1993. At least 12 law makers are languishing in the Junta's notorious prison. And the appeals by the international community -United Nations General Assembly including for their release have gone in vain. In fact, there are some 1000 political prisoners. They include the 1991 Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myint Thein, a Member of Parliament and spokesman for NLD who was jailed repeatedly, died at age 62 in Singapore on 29 March. He was last detained in Yangon's notorious Insein Prison on Sep 27, 2007, after the peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks ended in a brutal crackdown. Myint Thein had been in declining health while he was incarcerated and he had to be hospitalized upon his release on Oct 30, 2007. Frequent detentions and lack of medical treatment and inadequate food in prison made him sick.

Suu Kyi and NLD stand for dialogue as they firmly believe in Gandhian values and concepts. But the Junta has cold shouldered NLD and ignored its dialogue offer. So NLD has no place at the National Convention the Junta had convened. The second-largest pro-democracy party, the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD), did not turn up dubbing the convention as undemocratic. The United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), which represents the ethnic parties of Shans, Karens, Kachins, Chins, Arakans, Mons and Karennis also declared ahead of the convention that they would not go to the forum in the absence of the NLD.

It goes without saying that minus NLD, the junta's seven-step roadmap becomes a farce with no genuine democratic principles and objectives. SPDC's roadmap has three foremost objectives. First whitewash the junta's crimes against humanity including the premeditated massacre at Depayin. Second do away with the result of the 1990 General Elections. Third persuade regional governments to support a sugar-coated military-monopolized parliament as a legislative body of Burma.

However, present situation in Burma shows that the military junta has been adamantly marching along the anti-democracy road. For instance, the junta continues to detain and imprison nearly 2,000 political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest on and off since 1990, leaders of the '88 Generation Students such as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Hla Myo Naung, Mee Mee, Aung Thu, Ko Ko and political leaders such as Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo and U Win Tin, a prominent journalist and executive member of the NLD, who at 78 has been languishing in prison since July 4, 1989.

Moreover, Su Su Nway, a member of the NLD, has been kept in custody in notorious Insein Jail since November 2007, following a peaceful demonstration. She received the 2006 Humphrey Freedom Award from the Canada-based group, Rights and Democracy, for her human rights activities. She was arrested in 2005 and 2007. Many political prisoners are reportedly seriously ill and receive only rudimentary health care. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been denied free access to conduct confidential prison visits since December 2005. Arrests and intimidation of political activists and journalists in Burma have been going on for two decades.

The state-run newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, said the arrests were made by peace-loving people to prevent instigators from trying to cause insecurity and strife. The '88 Generation Students' group condemned the action. It is improper and immoral to assault, perturb, harass and detain those demonstrating peacefully for change. The student group urged the government to start dialogue with the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the sake of national reconciliation.

Earlier than the 18th anniversary of Burma's 1990 General Elections which falls on 27 May 2008, the key regional players, China, India, Japan and ASEAN, should recognize their obligation to Burma. They must urge SPDC to give up its fruitless policies and unproductive plans. If the junta is reluctant to recognize the will of its own people, the consequences that follow may not be to its likings. People's will cannot be wished away nor their aspirations just as the verdict in a popular election cannot be brushed aside endlessly.

People believe that the decision to hold a referendum this May is a fruitless attempt of Sen. Gen. Than Shwe. It will be hard to convince the country's voters that it was not a controversial constitution written by pro-military delegates. On the contrary, Than Shwe has declared a war not only on the people of Burma but also towards the world body by neglecting the UN's decisions. Than Shwe dares enough to challenge Ban Ki-moon as if he knew of rival's weakness. It is time Ban puts a thinking cap and takes a fresh look at the Burma question in its entirety.

- Asian Tribune -

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