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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2769

Looking Beyond 2010 Election in Burma

By Nehginpao Kipgen

It is saddening to see a government’s sentencing of prison terms ranging from 6 months to 65 years on its own citizens. The alleged convicts are none other than some of the most admired artists, revered monks and peaceful activists who dearly love their country.

The international community’s political rhetoric, without any substantive action, has emboldened the military generals to advance their seven-step roadmap toward a "disciplined and flourishing democracy," slowly but steadily.

It was unsurprising to see the lukewarm reaction of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toward a largely symbolic petition submitted to him by 112 former world leaders, asking him to visit Burma in the wake of rampant arrests in recent weeks and months. The Dec. 3 petitioners include Jimmy Carter and Tony Blair, among others.

Ban, out of frustration, through his spokesperson Michele Montas, responded to the letter by saying: "....will not be able to do so without reasonable expectations of a meaningful outcome, which is what we have been saying all along...."

What could that paper tiger achieve, anyway? Had the same letter been sent by the same number of incumbent world leaders, it could have better leverage. The move was an encouraging sign, but will have a very minimal impact, if not none at all. It will be more efficacious if the 112 world leaders, rather, convince their own governments to take pragmatic actions in line with what the U.N. chief was asked to do.

It is the U.N. Security Council that can initiate effective action that the offices of the Secretary General would implement, not vice versa. Ban Ki-moon sees the limitations his good offices can play in the absence of any enforcement mechanism.

If Ban were to go to Burma without having to achieve any substantive results, he could demean the Secretary General’s office. His basic demands, such as the release of political prisoners and initiation of dialogue with the opposition groups, have not materialized.

Instead of listening to repeated calls for the release of political prisoners, the military authority in recent weeks has handed down long prison terms to anyone seen to be a disturbance to the upcoming 2010 election.

On the other hand, the military was sending yet another clear message to the international community. Senior General Than Shwe was seen bragging about the 15-year existence of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and its growing 24.6 million members.

On the fourth day of the association’s 15th anniversary on November 29, Senior General Than Shwe was heard saying: “....plans are well underway to see to the remaining steps including the 2010 transition work program. So, it is fair to say that the future of the State structure is certain to materialize.”

In the new constitution, 25 percent of seats in both houses of parliament (House of Representatives and House of Nationalities) are reserved for the military. Amendment of constitution will require the approval of more than 75 percent of votes. In other words, the constitution has been designed to perpetuate military rule.

The military generals learnt a lesson from the 1990 general election - any free and fair election will be in favor of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other democratic opposition groups. It is a question remains to be seen whether the NLD will be allowed to participate in the election.

If the NLD is barred from election or the party chooses not to participate, the political scenario beyond the 2010 election could even become murkier. While the new government will be busy with its own agendas, the NLD will continue to lobby the international community to recognize the 1990 election results.

The 2010 election will bring a transition in Burma, but the new government will still be directly or indirectly under the military. One other significant implication is that the result of 1990 general election will become a bygone history.

As usual, the international community will send mixed responses of the election outcome. While most Western nations will not or perhaps only reluctantly recognize the result, many Asian governments will welcome it as a positive step toward democracy.

It is these conflicting approaches that have given the military generals a political breathing space. Sanctions versus engagements and or appeasements by the international community are responsible for the survival of the military regime.

One must not, however, believe that successful implementation of the State Peace and Development Council’s seven-step roadmap will bring an end to the decades-old political problems of Burma.

We will continue to see the simmering political turmoil in the country. The military generals are indifferent to and even anathema to any concept of federalism, which has been the basic demand of the country’s ethnic nationalities, other than the Burmese.

A long-lasting solution to Burma’s problems needs the sincerity, honesty and the participation of all ethnic groups. Different ethnic groups should be brought into confidence, and their legitimate demands should be looked into. In sum, this process of democratization must have an inclusive approach.

Burma’s political landscape could still be dramatically changed before and after the 2010 general election, provided that the international community steps up to embark on a coordinated action using a "carrot and stick" approach.

Meanwhile, the capability of the military junta should not be undermined. The regime has taken pride in having one of the largest armies in the region, with over 400,000 personnel. The military is also well protected by the U.N. Security Council’s veto structure.

If the international community is sincere and serious about finding a solution to Burma’s political problems, it should take actions that would make a difference. There are ways to bring down or convince the military generals.

Military intervention, a model of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear stand-off, and the U.N. Security Council Resolution will be some of the swiftest, if not most effective, tools to bring democratic change in Burma. However, none of the above is likely to happen in the near future.

If no realistic action is on the agenda, the international community should look beyond the 2010 election and start planning for new policies and strategies to be pursued under a new military-controlled government.

Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com), and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).

- Asian Tribune -

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