Myanmar's awful choice

23 April 2008

Apr 23rd 2008
[Source -]

A referendum its people cannot win

IN EMBASSIES abroad, voting has already begun in the referendum on Myanmar’s new constitution, which will be held in-country on May 10th. The ruling junta advertises it as an important step forward on its “roadmap” to democratic, civilian rule. If only.

Rather the referendum is, in the words of Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, a “ritual without real content”.

Or perhaps it is even worse than that: a ritual with content, symbolising and confirming the sheer misery of Myanmar’s plight and threatening to make it permanent. A junta-appointed committee took 15 years to draft the constitution, which offers nothing close to democracy.

It gives the army chief the power to intervene in politics at will. Several cabinet seats would be reserved for army officers, as would 25% of seats in both houses of parliament.

A bizarre clause is apparently tailor-made to bar Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader, from elected office. When Myanmar last held elections, she was banned because of her foreign connections: she was married to a foreigner and had spent much of her life abroad.

Her husband has since died, and she has been in Myanmar without interruption—mostly under lock and key. Now, however, those whose “children or their spouses” are foreign are excluded. Miss Suu Kyi’s two sons are British, having been deprived of their Burmese citizenship.

Despite all this, some of the regime’s critics used to think the constitution worth voting for: it is, after all, the only chance of change that is on offer. And it does envisage some sort of political process, with a parliament, which implies debate and even, perhaps, disagreement.

To be blithely optimistic, this process might gather a momentum of its own. It might, for example, expose the undoubted rifts within the junta.

And, by bringing in the “ceasefire groups”—representatives of ethnic insurgencies that are at present quiescent—it would bring a formal end to some of the world’s longest-running armed conflicts.

Now, however, it is hard to find anyone outside the junta itself who favours a “yes” vote. There are two main reasons for this. The first is the junta’s brutal suppression of last autumn’s monk-led protests. A much feared and loathed regime proved itself even more hateful.

Second is the strengthening of provisions in the draft designed to make it hard to change it in future. Amendment will require at least 75% of the votes in parliament—ie, including those of some of the soldiers—and 50% of eligible voters in a subsequent referendum.

So the constitution seems a way of entrenching eternal military domination.

Any hint of a campaign for a “no” vote in Myanmar has been suppressed—those caught scrawling graffiti face long jail sentences; T-shirts bearing the word “Nobody”, which were made in Thailand and which Burmese had taken to wearing in discreet protest, are being removed from shop shelves.

With no independent poll-monitors, even if there is a “no” vote, we might never know. The generals will surely remember the embarrassment of being thrashed in the election they held in 1990.

So the looming vote evokes in some activists not the hope of change, however imperfect, but desperation over its impossibility. In that sense, it is comparable to the role of the Beijing Olympics in Tibet—almost a last chance to make a futile protest heard.

In a rare (if minor) incident of terrorism in Myanmar, two small bombs exploded in the centre of Yangon on Sunday April 20th. The government has blamed a group of exiled dissidents. But the one thing Myanmar is not short of is angry, desperate people.


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