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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2614

Waiting for new dawn in Burma

By Zin Linn*

Burma keeps title of the most repressive regime in ASEAN, despite the military junta's promise for political reform, economic transformation and national reconciliation. The State Peace and Development Council, (SPDC), the all powerful apex power centre in the country, has severely restricted the basic rights and freedoms of people from all walks of life. It has not spared the ethnic tribal minorities, many of whom are up in arms in their native forests and are therefore singled out for more atrocities.

Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been making a fervent plea for a dialogue. No one who is anyone in the Myanmar power structure bothers to hear her and respond to her. In her 'Letters to a Dictator' Aung San Suu Kyi said, "The important point is that the NLD has repeatedly written to the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) asking for a dialogue. The party has done this because it believes that the only way to solve the current problems, including those of the National Convention is through a substantial dialogue. We strongly believe that there is no other way."

Dialogue is precisely what the United Nations has called ad infinitum to facilitate genuine national reconciliation in Burma between the regime and the pro-democracy opposition and ethnic leaders. The Junta has brushed aside these concerns. And a terse comment in its official organ, "The New Light of Myanmar" daily, said, "the solution to the problems in Myanmar's transition (to democracy) is review (of the steps taken so far) and not a dialogue".

During last 15 years, the United Nations has been unproductive in dealing with Myanmar military regime regardless of its efforts. The General Assembly has passed resolutions every year calling for change as well as dialogue in Burma/ Myanmar; all these resolutions have been disregarded by the military rulers. The UN Commission on Human Rights also passed more than a dozen consecutive resolutions; their fate was no different.

The European Union, the United States, human rights groups and even the UN consider the so called reconciliation convention staged by the Junta as a sham as most important opposition groups were not allowed to participate. Remarkably, Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Czech president Vaclav Havel presented a damning report to the United Nations, calling on the world body to take new steps to push the junta to reform. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro also presented a report to the UN General Assembly, detailing serious human rights violations and demanding the release of 1,100 political prisoners.

Unmindful of the global pressure, the Junta has resumed its work on drafting a new constitution. This is the first phase of a seven-stage road map, the Generals presented to the nation last year.

Conveniently, however, they have set no time frame for drafting the guiding principles of the new statute. Consider this. The Junta convened the National Convention on the Constitution for the first time on January 9, 1993. After it laboured for three years with no result in sight, the Convention was adjourned on April 1, 1996. It was reconvened eight years later on May 17, 2004. It met intermittently in 2005 and 2006.

Neither Aung San Suu Kyi' NLD nor other parties like the Shan National League for Democracy and Karen, Kachin, Chin, Arakan, Mon and Karenni are represented at the discussion table. 13 cease-fire groups also boycotted after their objections were brushed aside by Convention chairman Lt-Gen Thein Sein and convention secretary Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, who is also the Minister for Information.

Over the past three years, the Convention has laid down 'the basic principles for eight of the 15 chapters in the proposed statute. "The State Fundamental Principles (104 basic principles)", "Structure of State", "Head of state", "Legislature", "Executive", "Judiciary", "Armed Forces" and "Citizenship, Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens" are the areas covered so far.

The current session of the National Convention is grappling with chapters that deal with "Elections ", "Political Parties", "State of Emergency", "State Flag, State Emblem, National Anthem and Capital", "Amendments of Constitution". Some senior SPDC officials aver that the constitution will be wrapped up by 2008 and that a referendum will be held in order to get people's stamp of approval and new elections will be held under later on. However, the process may not be regard as a true political reform as the Junta is giving up its crack down on the opposition, especially the NLD and the 1988 student-generation group.

Although the SPDC has vowed to go ahead with its Convention plans, it will have to encounter numerous external pressures to accelerate the process and let it to be an all-encompassing meeting. Firstly, Burma figures prominently on the Security Council agenda. Neither the differences between US-EU and China-Russia over how to deal with Burma nor the cozing up of China to Burmese Junta may be a big hurdle in the changing global scene for united global action against Rangoon. Secondly, and more importantly, Myanmar's economic downward spiral and the unfolding human misery as a consequence may become new factors that are difficult to gloss over.

Inflation has skyrocketed. Commodity prices have soared. GDP growth rate has stagnated in 2005-06 fiscal year. Almost 75 per cent of the people are living below the poverty line. 25 per cent households are below minimum subsistence level. Half of rural families are landless. Health care is virtually non-existent. HIV is spreading. UN estimates show that 2.2 per cent of adults are HIV victims (up to 6000,000 people). Around 50,000 are dieing of AIDs every year. Moreover, one-third of the children are under nourished. One-tenth of them die before 5 years of age. And the country has been epidemics of malaria (600,000 new cases annually) and TB (100,000 new cases annually).

Official statistics show that the Junta spends $1 .10 per citizen on education and $4 on healthcare and a whopping $ 400 per soldier. Asian Development Bank (ADB) puts the total public sector deficit at around 6% of GDP for 2004-2005. Heavy losses by the country's state-owned enterprises (SOEs) typically account for over 60% of the overall deficit. The fiscal position is also weighed down by high off-budget spending on the huge armed forces.

Against this bleak scenario in one of its member countries, ASEAN will hold its summit this month. Prominent item on the agenda is a code of conduct for ASEAN nations. It is unclear as of now whether the code will include an option of expelling a member which pays no attention to the new by-laws. The people of Burma are hoping that the summit will mark a turning point in history, and that 2007 will bring in a new a dawn in their lives. Their hopes are pinned on regional players - China, India, Japan and ASEAN.

Japan has previously joined with China and Russia in opposing UN Security Council action against Burma. It has since changed its stand and closed ranks with 10 of the 15 council members on a vote to the Burmese question on the council's agenda.

Japan and ASEAN in particular should try to persuade China to cooperate in finding a solution to the 'Burma question'. Regional players should discourage the military regime in Rangoon to repeat a misleading anti-dialogue policy that keeps the people of Burma in a state of despondency. Countries that neglect the Burmese people's sufferings and support the military are helping to prolong the inhumane reign of fascist terror.

* Zin Linn - the author, who lives in exile in Bangkok , is an executive member of Burma Media Association.

- Asian Tribune -

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