By Kyaw Zwa Moe
[Source - Bangkok Post]
After nearly two decades in power, Burma's ruling junta should be showing signs of wear and tear. Indeed, observers are constantly on the lookout for evidence of a split within the ranks of the regime's top leadership.
Not surprisingly, they often find what they are looking for. But rarely, if ever, do these internal strains signal the sort of real weakness that could undermine the junta's hold on power.
Since it seized power in 1988, the current regime has carried out four significant purges, each time emerging stronger and more united.
In each case, the motive for removing certain high-ranking figures from their positions was personal rather than political. At no point has there ever been any major disagreement among the top generals about what direction the country should take.
The first change to take place in the regime's leadership came in April 1992 when ruling military council head Saw Maung was forced to step down, opening the way for current leader Than Shwe to assume the position of head of state.
Senior General Saw Maung wasn't dismissed because he had shown a willingness to hand over power to the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy. Actually, he refused to recognise the results of the 1990 national elections, which had handed the NLD an overwhelming victory.
The real problem was Gen Saw Maung's health. "He was becoming increasingly erratic and his public speeches were incoherent and rambling, covering subjects such as dying tomorrow and sightings of Jesus in Tibet," wrote journalist Bertil Lintner in his book Burma in Revolt. Finally, he had a nervous breakdown and his tenure as Burma's supreme leader came to an abrupt end.
In 1997, several junta members and senior ministers, including Trade and Commerce Minister Lt-Gen Tun Kyi, Hotels and Tourism Minister Lt-Gen Kyaw Ba and Agriculture Minister Lt-Gen Myint Aung were purged. All three had previously been regional commanders notorious for abuse of power in their respective regions of Mandalay Division, Kachin State and Irrawaddy Division. They were removed from their ministerial posts on charges of corruption.
In 2002, Secretary 3 Lt-Gen Win Myint and Minister for Military Affairs Lt-Gen Tin Hla were sacked because "they violated state policy". There was no evidence that political rivalry had played any part in their ouster.
The most interesting and controversial purge happened in 2004 when Khin Nyunt, the prime minister and chief of intelligence, was dismissed and arrested on charges of corruption. Gen Khin Nyunt, who for many years was one of the most influential figures within the junta, is currently under house arrest, with a suspended prison sentence of 44 years.
Some foreign observers regarded Gen Khin Nyunt as a "moderate" military officer who had shown some willingness to move the country towards a political transition. However, Burmese dissidents dubbed him the "Prince of Evil," as the person primarily responsible for the arrest and torture of thousands of political prisoners.
The 2004 purge was due to Senior General Than Shwe's suspicion of the military intelligence apparatus, which had been under Gen Khin Nyunt's control for two decades. Gen Than Shwe ordered the dismantling of the military intelligence services, but Gen Khin Nyunt's political legacy _ the so-called "road map to democracy" _ remained in place even after he was neutralised.
Since last September's monk-led protests, there have been persistent rumours of discontent among field generals who disagreed with the top generals' orders to shoot monks and other peaceful protesters.
However, no evidence of a serious rift within the junta has yet emerged over its handling of the demonstrations.
Instead, the current 11 members of the State Peace and Development Council (the military regime's official name) and its powerful regional commanders seem to be more unified than ever, especially since the Feb 9 announcement of a constitutional referendum slated for May 10.
It is, in fact, very difficult to imagine military officials wanting a radical political shift. They know that it is in their own interests to stick together in order to hold on to their privileges. No high-ranking military leader is going to put the good of the country ahead of his family's well-being.
There may well be a handful of far-sighted military officials who realise that the current situation cannot continue forever. But these individuals are in no position to seriously influence the country's political direction. The only choice before them is to obey and hopefully work their way up the ranks, where they might be able to do some good. But the odds are strongly against it.
Anything is possible, but there is little point in daydreaming that Burma's long overdue revolution could come about through a transformation within the junta.
Unfortunately for the Burmese people, the regime's ability to manage its internal conflicts probably means that it will see no need to respond to external pressures for some time to come.
Kyaw Zwa Moe is managing editor of "TheIrrawaddy" magazine based in Chiang Mai.www.irrawaddy.org
By Kyaw Zwa Moe
Apr 23rd 2008
[Source - Economist.com]
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.
April 18, 2008
They were called volunteers, but if they didn't work they could be arrested. Wai was still in high school when she saw her parents and sister forced into labor by the government.Wai's family has a long history of political involvement. Her grandfather was part of the communist party in Burma, eventually getting arrested and given the death sentence by the government for his political choices.
[Source - RFA]
Burmese politician Daw Nan Khin Htwe Myint represents Pa-An township in the country’s parliament. She was one of three female university students jailed for their part in political activism around 1975. She became a well-known political prisoner while serving her sentence in Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison, a period she still remembers with pain. Now she has dedicated her political life to Burma’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). She spoke recently to RFA’s Burmese service about the hard times, and about her hopes for Burmese women in politics:
“I’ve encountered many difficulties. When I was a student, I started to be become interested in politics without fully understanding what was involved. The difficulty I had then was that in a family, when a son goes to prison, the family says, ‘Oh, he’s a son. He can take it.’ However, when a young daughter goes to prison, the parents think, ‘Oh, my young daughter must be suffering a lot. She must be experiencing hardship,’ and the parents themselves have to suffer. That was a problem for our family.”
“When I was actually in prison, the difference between male and female political prisoners was this: When I was in Moulmein prison there wasn’t any place for female political prisoners. There was a separate place for male political prisoners. There were many male political prisoners. In Moulmein prison, for example, there were about 54 male political prisoners. I was the only female political prisoner. Since there wasn’t a separate place for me, I was kept next to the criminals. When I had to live with all kinds of people, I started to suffer. There is companionship if you are with people who are at the same level with you and with whom you can have a conversation. But I had no one.”
“They didn’t understand these things. I was all by myself and so I became lonely. My life was really empty. I was alone. I was there for years. As I lived by myself for longer and longer, I started to talk to myself. I wanted to talk. Then I started to enjoy talking to myself. I started asking myself questions, and would answer myself a lot. I was winning in these conversations. I became mentally weak. I lasted this long only because I had a great conviction and a strong belief in religion. An ordinary person can go crazy in this situation—after being alone for a long time. So male and female political prisoners go through the same thing, suffer the same thing. Both go to prison for six years each, but these six years that women go through are harsher than the men’s.”
Sacrifices for the future
“My husband understands my participation in politics. But we don’t have any children. I feel that if we have a child, what if I have to go to prison while I’m pregnant? I won’t feel good at all. There’s no way I’m going to take my child to prison. If I’ve already given birth and have to leave my child outside while I’m in prison—since I would be a very loving mother, there’s no way I can leave my child outside and go to prison.”
“So the two of us always have this problem of whether to have a child or not. He wants children. I would also like to have our own child very much. This is quite a big problem for the two of us. When women participate in politics, we have to risk a lot and sacrifice a lot. I would love to see a peaceful child, a child in my bosom, a child nursing, but I can’t enjoy this. I have to make a sacrifice. This is a problem in my family.”
“I feel that now I’m suffering all by myself, but there’ll be many children for the future, and we will have to sacrifice and do these things for them. We can do these things only when there’s no attachment. So I’ll have to stop my attachments. Only when I do this will I be able to continue. No one can work with these attachments. For the good of the people, I decided to let go of these things for myself.”
Kitchen, politics 'related'
“There are many women in Burma. Even though people are saying that we don’t have much political knowledge, actually, the kitchen and politics are directly related. We should participate in politics and be active. We, the women and the mothers should bravely go to the referendum and vote ‘No’ [to the military junta’s draft constitution enshrining its continuing rule] for the future of our kids and watch when they count the votes.”
“We should not be too scared to speak up when we see injustice. For the future of our children, we have to speak up, object, and demand things bravely and clearly.”
(redistributed from Reporters without Borders, 11 April, 2008)
Reporters Without Borders pays tribute to Burmese journalist and writer Ludu Daw Amar, called “the mother of Burmese journalists,” who died on 7 April, aged 93, in a Mandalay hospital.
“All her long life, she resisted the pressure of the military and fought for freedom of expression for journalists and the Burmese people,” the organisation said. “Our thoughts are with her family, friends and admirers who traditionally gathered each year in Mandalay to mark her birthday. Journalists made the occasion into a symbol of resistance to the military dictatorship. We also think of her friend Win Tin, who is still being held at Rangoon’s Insein prison and was not allowed to go to her funeral.”
Ludu Daw Amar helped set up Mandalay’s first publishing house in the 1940s and got the nickname "Ludu" (“of the people”) because of her commitment to the poor in the paper she edited, Ludu Daily News, which was closed in the 1960s for its liberal views.
"She always criticised the government and was like the mother of all Burmese journalists,” Burmese commentator Win Min told Agence France-Presse news agency. “She was a moral symbol and the people were proud of her.”
( Ludu Daw Amar and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi )
Nearly 4,000 people attended her funeral on 9 April, including many of the country’s journalists, writers and cultural figures. Her ashes were cast into the Irrawaddy River. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, sent a bouquet of flowers.
Apr 10th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Two ways to repair China's image: end the torch relay and take a lead over Myanmar
WERE shooting oneself in the foot an Olympic event, China would surely be well placed for a gold. The Beijing 2008 Olympic Torch Relay, taking the flame around the world before the games begin in August, was always a risk. Of course the flame would draw protesters like moths. But the suppression of riots and protests in Tibet has ensured the torch's progress has graduated from minor diplomatic embarrassment to full-scale public-relations disaster (see article).
An exercise intended to flaunt the new, outward-looking and confident China has displayed its dark side: nervous, repressive, prickly and stubborn. That stubbornness may rule out the obvious remedy: calling the whole farce off before someone is badly hurt. At least the International Olympic Committee should have nothing more to do with it. Protests this week in London, Paris and San Francisco were ill-tempered enough. The passage through Delhi on April 17th could be uglier. India is home to some 100,000 Tibetans. The only stop on the torch's world tour sure to be trouble-free is Pyongyang. As for its proposed procession through Tibet in June, it is hard to imagine a more provocative or insensitive gesture.
To accuse China's critics of “politicising” a sporting event is nonsense. What has the relay to do with sport? It is not some timeworn practice integral to the games. Rather, the idea of a relay from Greece to the Olympic venue was revived by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which is hardly a precedent China wants to advertise. The first “global” relay only took place for the most recent Olympics, in Athens in 2004. But that was not such a circus. China's pride may preclude any concession, however face-saving, on Tibet, or on human-rights abuses in general. But it is also facing criticism for its foreign policy—its links with the governments of Sudan and Myanmar in particular. Here, in theory, it can do something to show that it is indeed a responsible international “stakeholder”, with diplomatic maturity as well as economic clout.
Take Myanmar. After the bloody quelling of the “saffron revolution” last September, the ruling junta threw a few sops to international opinion. It accepted visits from a United Nations envoy, opened talks with the detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and gave a timetable for a political transition. China deserves some credit for forcing the junta's hand. Myanmar's generals are nobody's puppets. But China, with its big commercial interests in the country, and its support in the UN Security Council, is now the junta's best friend.
It is time to use that position again. Confident that the outside world's focus on their misdeeds has shifted elsewhere, the generals have stalled on dialogue both with their opponents at home and the UN's envoy. The plight of their country remains desperate (see article). The political “process” has degenerated into a drive to impose a constitution entrenching military rule. A referendum on this solution will be held on May 10th in a climate of vicious intimidation.
Members of the Security Council are mulling a new statement, calling for some of the minimum reforms needed for a credible vote—such as the release of opposition leaders, including Miss Suu Kyi. The first thing China can do is to allow the statement to be issued in the name of a united outside world. More than that, China could help resolve the sterile debate that has raged for two decades over “engagement” or “isolation”. Isolation has never worked, because China, India and South-East Asian countries see too much commercial and strategic benefit in links with the junta. But nor has “engagement”, since Western countries have imposed sanctions of varying severity, and the junta has little interest in engaging anyway.
Nobody wins gold for sitting on a fence
Despite this, there is a broad consensus about the need for reform in Myanmar. With anti-Chinese feeling mounting in Myanmar, it is not in China's interests to be perceived as the prop that always holds up a loathed regime. It could take the initiative in forming a contact group to engage the junta in talks on economic co-operation and political reform. Even if it excluded Europe and America, such a group, of China, India, some South-East Asian countries and Japan, could help show the generals that they cannot forever survive in the cracks of other countries' disagreements. And it could help show that China is not always, unequivocally, on the side of the thugs.
Apr 10th 2008 | YANGON
From The Economist print edition
AS DUSK shrouds the Sule pagoda in central Yangon, the dazzling neon haloes behind many of the Buddhas' heads flash brighter. Before them the devout, kneeling in their sarongs, murmur prayers, light joss-sticks and touch their foreheads to the marble floor. Outside, traffic roars on the city's busiest roundabout. The shrine, housing a hair from the Buddha's head, is one of Myanmar's holiest and some 2,000 years old. But Burmese temples are all works in progress. This one gleams with fresh white paint and gold leaf. In contrast, over the road, the dirty-yellow façade of City Hall is a study in crumbling neglect.
Even in the commercial heart of its largest city, religion remains central to life in Myanmar. Many Burmese felt the country's thuggish junta crossed a line last September, when its soldiers opened fire on monks leading protests against its rule—including some beside the Sule pagoda. It seemed proof that a regime fond of numerology and superstition ruled neither by divine right nor by popular acquiescence, but by force. Nobody knows how many were killed as the protests were quashed; much of Myanmar remains an information chasm. A United Nations rapporteur has said at least 31 died. In Yangon many believe, probably wrongly, that hundreds or thousands did. Suppressing the truth lets all sorts of rumours flourish.
As in 1988, when thousands did die as an anti-government uprising was put down, there was international outrage, followed by fresh sanctions last autumn. A United Nations envoy, Ibrahim Gambari of Nigeria, was sent to Myanmar to convey concern, and thousands joined protest marches round the world. But a few months on, the generals appear as immovable as ever. Indeed, diplomats who have visited them in the remote mountain fastness of their new capital, Naypyidaw, say they are even more confident. A squall has been weathered, and they can return to what they do best: wrecking their country and making a good living out of it.
Over a pricey cappuccino in Mr Brown's, a café just behind City Hall, in a dingy first-floor lounge favoured by courting couples, a young man discusses the protests. He took part in the previous round with a scarf covering his face. But the time, he says, is not right to take to the streets again. He cannot afford to. Many others say the same. He works as a house-painter, earning about $30 a month, and lives in a Yangon suburb with his parents, landless farmers who make about $20 a month each. During the protests he went five days without work or pay. Like almost all his contemporaries, his ambition is to find a job abroad. He could get one in Singapore but would need to pay $3,000 for the privilege, an unimaginable fortune.
Yet, quietly, low-level protests continue. In late March many monks boycotted annual state-run examinations in Buddhist literature. Soldiers have been, in effect, excommunicated. Monks refuse to accept alms from them, denying them karma-enhancing “merit”. And such is the thirst for revenge of many in Yangon that renewed protests are possible at any time. Cloistered in Naypyidaw, the junta may be caught unawares again. “They live in a bubble when they're out,” says one diplomat, “and a bunker when they're not.”
Repression continues, too. Many monks are still in their villages, where they were sent after the unrest. At a monastery in Pakokku, where the beating of monks last September played a big part in fanning the flames of protest, more than a third have yet to return. Some of those locked up during the protests are still detained—perhaps 1,000, alongside 1,100 long-term political prisoners. Others are still being arrested. On March 29th six young people were detained for staging a peaceful rally against the draft constitution the junta wants to foist on Myanmar. Another protester, Ohn Than, who was arrested last August while staging a silent sit-in to protest against fuel-price rises, was sentenced this month to life imprisonment. Some protest leaders are still in hiding, planning the next round. Others have fled to Thailand.
The official press remains laughably propagandist. (“Commander, Minister view thriving mung, sunflower plantations” was one recent front-page story in the New Light of Myanmar, the junta's English-language daily.) Access to foreign news is limited. But a threat this year to ban satellite dishes by imposing extortionate licence fees was not carried out. Perhaps the generals feared that losing the right to watch English football—a tea-shop passion—would have been the final straw.
Internet connections are at best patchy, and almost non-existent at times of tension, such as during last month's visit to Yangon by Mr Gambari. Foreign journalists are not allowed into the country, unless they pretend to be tourists. A number do. After a purge of the intelligence services in 2004, the immigration authorities appear to have mislaid their files.
A vote the army cannot lose
Tension will mount again next month. In its one gesture to political reform, the junta has said it will hold a referendum on the new constitution. This week it announced the date—May 10th—and published the draft, putting copies of the 194-page document on sale. If the vote goes ahead, and the draft is approved by 50% of voters, the junta says multiparty elections would follow in 2010. On “Armed Forces Day”, March 27th, Than Shwe, the senior general in the junta, promised he would then hand over power to a civilian government. The regime is waging a propaganda campaign to promote a “yes” vote. In big letters, as if speaking slowly to a classroom of dim children, the New Light pointed out that, if the draft is not approved by 2010, elections will be delayed. “If so, it will take longer for the nation to exercise democracy.”
Not, of course, that democracy is really on offer. “Guidelines” agreed after 14 years of aimless rumination by a committee appointed to take the generals' dictation appeared last September. They made clear that some of the main features of military dictatorship would persist. The army chief would have the power to intervene in politics at will and several ministries would be reserved for army officers, as would 25% of seats in both houses of parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader, would be excluded from politics, as the widow of a foreigner. The generals seem to have retreated, however, from a provision in an earlier version of the draft in which any amendment of the constitution would need 75% of the votes in parliament. Instead, it would have to be approved by 50% of the popular vote.
“The issue”, says Mark Canning, Britain's ambassador in Yangon, “is not Clause A, B or C. It's the whole superstructure of intimidation that hangs over it.” There is no dialogue with the opposition, whose most important members are locked up. And, under the law, criticising the convention that drafted the constitution is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
Miss Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, has called for a “no” vote. Exiled activists and monks advocate a boycott. Many critics of the regime who used to think any change was better than none have changed their minds since last September's violence. However, a resounding “yes” vote seems inevitable. The junta surely will not repeat the mistake it made in 1990, when it held an election and was astonished to be routed. Miss Suu Kyi was already in detention. Yet the League won more than 60% of the votes and 80% of the seats, even doing well in areas dominated by soldiers.
The League fears that, before or after the referendum, it might be banned. Already its organisation has been whittled down to little more than a head office in Yangon. The parliament that emerges in 2010 may include a handful of token opposition politicians. But it will probably be dominated by soldiers, by the junta's cronies—urban businessmen and rural landowners—and by members of a new political party the junta is planning to form. Its nucleus would be the “Union Solidarity and Development Association” (USDA), a pro-junta group formed in 1993. USDA is one of a number of ill-defined “mass social organisations” that claim over 20m members—presumably by pressganging students, civil servants and others to join up. It is best known for a hard core of white-shirted thugs, used for pro-junta rallies.
The parliament would also include representatives of the “ceasefire groups”, the dozen or so ethnic insurgencies on Myanmar's borders with which the junta has reached truces. Some groups, such as the Karen National Union, fight on. These wars have dragged on since independence in 1948. In his book on Myanmar, “The River of Lost Footsteps”, Thant Myint-u argues that the West tends to see the country as the seat of a thwarted Eastern European-style people-power revolution. But it is in fact a war-torn disaster area, like Afghanistan or Cambodia. The constitution, he says, would at least formalise a sort of peace with some of its insurgents.
It would be wildly optimistic to hope that creating a parliamentary system of the sort the junta seems to envisage might, over time, bring pluralism. But the process does at least imply some change in Myanmar's predicament. And, as Miss Suu Kyi used to say, Myanmar is like a frozen river: it looks still, but who knows what turbulence is roiling the waters under the ice?
For most Burmese, the predicament is economic as well as political. Freedoms have been trampled on for decades. And making a living is actually getting harder. Last year, as in 1988, it was an economic grievance—an increase in the fuel price as subsidies were slashed—that sparked political unrest. It is not that the economy is on the point of collapse. It collapsed long ago. Those eking out a living in the rubble are still vulnerable to aftershocks.
Collapse is not immediately evident in Yangon. There are ugly shanty towns and slums. But busy streets, a few swanky hotels and shops, advertisement-filled business journals and some palatial mansions in the leafy hills testify to a thin but not insignificant layer of middle-class comfort—and a rare splash of grotesque wealth. Until the 1990s, Yangon seemed frozen in its colonial past. Almost the only cars on its broad avenues were ancient, patched-up sedans. Ne Win, the dictator who led the army into power in 1962, pursued a “Burmese Road to Socialism” of autarky, isolation and utter stagnation. After the 1988 uprising the generals allowed a partial opening up, and a minority has prospered.
Unbidden, a taxi-driver takes a detour to drive past the high gates of a palace he says belongs to Tay Za, the regime's most prominent business crony. Beyond the reinforced grille half-a-dozen shiny new sports cars can be glimpsed. “Dirty money,” snarls the driver, alleging it comes from Myanmar's big drugs trade (mainly, these days, methamphetamines rather than heroin). But when it tightened sanctions on Mr Za in February, America's Treasury called him just an “arms dealer and financial henchman” of the junta.
Underpinning the wealth of the elite is more than drugs and guns. Its biggest legal export is of natural gas to Thailand. India and China are also hungrily eyeing other oil and gas reserves, and already the generals can relish the prospect of a windfall from a planned pipeline to China. The Thai sales earned an estimated $2.7 billion last year, 45% of total exports. But this neither trickles down nor creates many jobs. The junta spends the money on itself, its arsenal and its absurd new capital. By contrast, a small garment-export industry has been destroyed by Western government sanctions and consumer boycotts, putting an estimated 100,000 people out of work.
So, beyond agriculture, there are few jobs. And in the countryside life is ever grimmer. A survey late last year by the government and the United Nations Development Programme found that of a population of about 53m, 30% lived below the poverty line. Infant mortality rates were high, at 76 per 1,000 live births. The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) says that 32% of children under five are malnourished. Of children enrolled in primary school, 57% drop out.
Feeding itself should be the least of Myanmar's problems. Burma, as it was until the junta renamed it in 1989, was once the ricebowl of Asia. Even today, and with rice in shorter supply across the continent, it produces a national rice surplus. Yet many of its 14 states or divisions have deficits. In northern Rakhine food shortages are perennial and malnutrition rife. There are also deficits in the “Central Dry Zone” and in Shan state, where the eradication of opium-poppy fields has impoverished farmers. Rice distribution is disrupted by pigheaded divisional commanders clinging on to their surpluses, and by army restrictions on internal traffic. So, in what one development worker calls a “heresy”, the WFP is helping feed Myanmar.
Alarmingly, despite agricultural plenty, Myanmar has the classic conditions for a famine: acute poverty, poor or non-existent flows of information and crazy policies. In one cackhanded intervention in agriculture, the junta in 2006 ordered every farmer with an acre (0.4 hectares) of land to plant “physic nuts” (jatropha) around the edge of his plot. It was so keen on the crop that it also set up special plantations. The idea was to make biofuels to meet Myanmar's energy shortage—even much of Yangon spends most evenings in darkness. But Myanmar lacks the refineries to turn the plants into fuel. The policy has been cited by many refugees pitching up at the Thai border as one reason for their flight: typically, the junta has been dragooning farmers into working for no pay in its jatropha plantations, so it becomes even harder to make a living.
Where Myanmar boils over
Burma was a crossroads of Asia. Myanmar's isolation is a new phenomenon, and its borders still provide a safety valve of sorts. That is especially true of Thailand, which has absorbed perhaps as many as 2m Burmese immigrants. Some analysts suggest that a sharp downturn in the Thai economy, closing that valve, might cause an explosion in Myanmar.
Even if economic hardship provokes another outburst of popular unrest, however, there is little reason to think the junta cannot handle it. It has about 500,000 soldiers, twice the number in 1988, despite the subsequent ceasefires in many of the insurgencies it was fighting. And the army has so far proved willing to shoot civilians—even monks—if ordered to.
Before the purge in 2004 of Khin Nyunt, the intelligence chief who was then prime minister, it was possible to perceive policy rifts in the junta's ranks. Some seemed to favour a cautious opening to the West, even if it meant talking to Miss Suu Kyi. Some analysts believe the junta is still divided: over the succession to Than Shwe, said to be ill, though he looked hale in March; over the alleged rivalry with his number two, Maung Aye; and over the transition to “civilian rule”. This seems plausible. But to hope for a mutiny, or self-destruction by the army, is wishful thinking. Its generals are probably too afraid of hanging separately not to hang together.
Some of the students who fled to the Thai border in 1988 expected to return, like Aung San, Miss Suu Kyi's father and Burma's liberation hero, as part of a conquering foreign army. One theory to explain the junta's bizarre move to Naypyidaw in 2005 is that, after the war in Iraq, it too feared invasion.
Now, veterans of the exile movement have almost given up hope of concerted diplomatic pressure, let alone military action, against the regime. People power, says one, is the only hope. At present that suggests only failure and bloodshed. And the outside world is certainly in disarray. The West favours sanctions and punishment; but Myanmar's fellow members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as India and, above all, China, hope their continued engagement with the junta will win them influence. China did indeed seem to persuade the generals to receive Mr Gambari and institute a dialogue with Miss Suu Kyi.
Than Shwe, however, would not even meet Mr Gambari on his most recent visit, last month. The West, meanwhile, has few levers of influence left. In part this is a result of having followed Miss Suu Kyi's own wishes. In the late 1990s, when the conditions of her detention were briefly eased and she could talk to the world, she favoured using sanctions and boycotts, including even of tourism, to put pressure on the junta. It is assumed she still does.
The Nobel peace-prize-winner's undoubted moral authority and courageous perseverance give her stance considerable weight. So does her huge electoral mandate. It may be old, but no one has a better one. Some Western policymakers now see Miss Suu Kyi as part of the problem. But that is daft. Without her, the opposition would lose not just a figurehead, but perhaps the last flicker of hope in Myanmar's political darkness.
Tue Apr 8, 8:13 AM ET
[Source - Yahoo News]
Adrees Latif, a Reuters photographer who has won the breaking news photography Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of anti-government protests in Myanmar last year, worked for Reuters in Houston and Los Angeles before taking up his post in Bangkok in 2003. In the following story, he tells the story behind the picture that won him the prize.
By Adrees Latif
BANGKOK (Reuters) - I landed in Yangon with some old clothes, a Canon 5D camera, two fixed lenses and a laptop.
For four days in September last year, I went to the city's historic Shwedagon Pagoda and waited for the Buddhist monks who gathered there to lead the biggest protests against Myanmar's military rulers in 20 years.
Since I was at the same pagoda every day, dozens of people, including monks, asked me who I was and what I was doing.
Not knowing who I could trust, my replies were guarded.
Barefoot in maroon robes and ringed by civilians, the monks chanted and prayed before starting their two-km march to the Sule Pagoda in central Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon.
Each day their numbers grew, from hundreds to tens of thousands.
The first small protests in August, against a sharp spike in fuel prices, had ballooned into street marches in Yangon and other cities against more than 40 years of military rule and economic hardship.
By September 27, the city was packed with troops. Soldiers and government agents stood at street corners. The crackdown was underway.
Finding Shwedagon sealed off, I went to the middle of town to find groups of young people taunting soldiers at Sule.
Within minutes, the crowd swelled from hundreds to a few thousand. The soldiers threw barbed wire coils across the roads.
Knowing that hundreds of people were gunned down in similar circumstances in a 1988 uprising, I climbed an old crosswalk directly overhead, to get to one of the few spots offering a clear view.
Below me, protesters were singing and waving flags. Young men were thrusting their pelvises at the soldiers in an act of defiance.
Then two dark green, open-top army trucks approached, followed by dozens more packed with riot police.
They were hit by a barrage of water bottles, fruit and abuse from the crowd.
I had already locked on my 135mm lens and set my camera shutter speed to 1,000, aperture to F/7.1 and ISO at 800.
With the camera on manual, I wanted to freeze the action while offering as much depth-of-field as possible.
Two minutes later, the shooting started.
My eye caught a person flying backwards through the air. Instinctively, I started photographing, capturing four frames of the man on his back.
The entry point of the bullet is clear in the first frame, with a soldier wearing flip flops standing over the man and pointing a rifle.
In the second frame, the man is reaching over to try and film.
More shots rang out.
I flinched before getting off two more frames -- one of the man pointing the camera at the soldier, and one of his face contorted in pain.
Beyond him, the crowd scattered before the advancing soldier.
The whole incident, which went on to reverberate around the world, was over in two seconds.
I kept low on the bridge, capturing some more images from among a crowd taking cover. But with soldiers firing shots and smoke grenades below, I had to get off the bridge.
Adrenaline pumping through my body, I put my camera in my bag and followed the protests for another hour and a half. Then I made my way back to my hotel through backstreets and along a railway line.
My initial caption read: "An injured man tries to photograph after police and military officials fired upon and then charged a crowd of thousands protesting in Yangon's city centre September 27, 2007."
Initially, I thought he was trampled. I had no idea he had died.
Two of the frames showed the man's face. A few hours later his colleagues in Japan had identified him as Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai.
The images dominated front pages around the world, playing a role in the public outrage at the crackdown which the United Nations said killed at least 31 people.
(Editing by Darren Schuettler and Sara Ledwith)
Published 08 April 2008
[Source - Newstatesman]
Six months ago the world watched a courageous attempt led by Buddhist monks to replace military dictatorship with democracy. But what's the situation in Burma today?
In recent days much of the world's attention has been firmly fixed on Tibet and the plight of the Burmese people seems to have been all but forgotten.
And yet things are not improving in that country. Far from it. According to one renowned Buddhist leader, the situation is deteriorating six months on from the bloody military crackdown against the pro-democracy movement.
Many monks have been forced to cross into Thailand and Malaysia because of political persecution. There are widespread allegations of disappearances, murder and torture by the dictatorship.
All this seems to be continuing despite an announcement by the military junta that next month a national referendum will be held on a new constitution with elections following in 2010.
The state media reported that "the time has now come to change from military rule to democratic civilian rule". Considering the junta’s numerous broken promises, the announcement to restore democratic civilian rule has been at best received with scepticism.
The constitution drafting process has been carefully engineered since 1993 and unsurprisingly contains no input from the public instead being drawn up by a handpicked assembly, without the participation of the country's main democratic opposition and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In fact draft constitution will bar her from holding government office because she was married to a foreigner. It is already clear that the constitution will ensure the military retains a stronghold on power in Burma and 25 per cent of the seats in the new parliament will be reserved for the armed forces.
Civilians will be permitted to enter parliament, but only if they show due deference to the military leaders. It furthermore allows stringent restrictions on any activities deemed "inimical to national unity" which covers a wide range of criticism and dissent.
Indeed, criticism of the draft constitution is punishable with up to 20 years behind bars, and criticising the referendum with up to three.
The question of how a free vote will take place in such a climate remains something of a riddle, and - unsurprisingly - the draft constitution has been denounced by critics as a ruse to consolidate the junta’s power. The rejection of an UN offer to send international monitors has only heightened these suspicions.
Than Shwe, Burma’s 75 year old leader, declared before an audience of diplomats that the military regime that has ruled Burma for 45 years had now "a sincere aim for developing the country without any cravings for power".
He however, made no reference to the bloody oppression his regime is still perpetrating and one wonders who he can fool with this statement.
The world still remembers when thousands of Burmese took to the streets making a variety of demands reflecting the widespread dissatisfaction with the continued military rule and the policies of the ruling State Peace and Development Council.
At least 227 distinct protests in 66 towns were staged which resulted in the deaths of officially 15 people (independent estimates state at least twice this number). Approximately 6,000 people were arrested, including as many as 1,400 monks. It is estimated that at least 700 protesters and monks remain in detention.
The ruling 'State Peace and Development Council' has denied any knowledge of the majority of those it killed during the protests. No attempts have been made to identify the dead, return the bodies to the families or even give the dead the minimum Buddhist funerary rites.
Instead, numerous testimonies have revealed a strategy in which bodies were removed systematically to cover up the extent of the violence. The Human Rights Documentation Unit of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma refers in Bullets in the Alms Bowl to persistent reports testifying to the fact that Ye Way Crematorium in North Okkalapa Township was operated from the 27th to the 30th of September by security forces to dispose most probably of the bodies of those killed.
By cracking down on monks, the junta took a calculated risk when violence against the country’s spiritual leaders was bound to inflame popular sentiments. Burmese monks are highly revered in Burmese society.
Considered to be ‘Sons of Buddha’ they represent the strongest institution in Burma after the military. Although according to the Buddhist monastic code, monks are not supposed to involve themselves in mundane politics, they have played an important social and political role in history.
Throughout British rule for instance, the so called ‘political monks’ played an important role in mobilising opposition to colonial excesses. After independence, monastic organisations pushed the new leaders to make Buddhism the state religion.
Attempts in the 1960s and 70s to bring Buddhism under tighter control was met with fierce resistance and Burma’s young and active Buddhist community of about 300,000 has had an uneasy relationship with the ruling generals.
During the 1988 democracy marches, the independent monks union emerged to support the students. The regime responded by issuing decrees to keep the monks in line and banning all independent Buddhist organizations.
Over the last two decades, the monks have observed a religious boycott of the regime and have refused alms from the military regime or simply overturned their bowls instead of collecting food and donations. By ruthlessly keeping monastic involvement in politics to a minimum since 1988, the role of the monks at the head of the recent protests took many, including the Government, by surprise.
Burma specialist Michael Charney points out that although it may appear that the State has successfully cowed the monks into submission, they have in the past survived more serious episodes of persecution.
“Given their importance in Burmese society and their resilience in past periods of political turmoil, it would be foolish to assume that they will not rebound from current setbacks,” he argues.
The authorities have resolutely tried to snuff out dissent and intelligence officers have systematically detained thousands of people believed to have participated in the protests.
Anger is still floating beneath the surface, and this is even the case for many people who were previously apolitical.
The crackdown has altered dynamics inside Burma and the country’s future is still unknown. The level of fear, but also anger is unprecedented.
More importantly, following international outrage over the brutal behaviour of the military regime, there were indications that differences have grown within the military itself.
Every government in Burma, going back to monarchical times has sought legitimacy through the Buddhist Sangha. Many within the military feel guilt-ridden and ashamed of their role in beating and killing monks.
There are no open splits yet, but there have been rumblings of mismanagement and corruption. The younger generation of generals is slowly beginning to realise change is inevitable.
When that change will actually come is harder to gauge.
Please take a look at the photo.
Now, they can own the temp. card which has validity of only six months only meant to participate during voting process of the draft constiution. After six months, we don't know the government will issue an actual nationality identification card. Since they participate in the voting process, they should be allowed myanmar citizenship.
In the card, It is clearly written in Remarks No. (2) :
With this card, it cannot identify which nationality at all.
For safety, we have erased the particulars of the owner of the card.
So, with this sentence, we don't know what this card is for. If somebody out there understands, please tell us. Do we need to issue temp. card just to participate in voting for the possible vote rigging?
If possible, please help us carry this new to the news agency.
Burma’s NLD Calls for a Referendum “No” Vote
Source : Irrawaddy News Agency
Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), called on the electorate for the first time on Wednesday to cast a “No” vote in the constitutional referendum in May.
The party, headed by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, said a “No” vote was necessary because the proposed constitution had not been written by elected representatives of the people but by “hand-picked puppets” of the regime.
The draft constitution, drawn up by the regime-constituted National Convention, and a general election to be held in May are the fourth and fifth steps of the junta’s seven-step “road map to a disciplined democracy”.
The NLD’s announcement on Wednesday said the proposed constitution broke a basic principle of democracy, under which authority had to come from the people. It also failed to guarantee democratic values and human rights.
By voting against the draft constitution, the people would be practicing their rights, said NLD spokesman Thein Nyunt. The state powers being exercised by the regime had not originated with the people, he told The Irrawaddy —“Therefore it is the responsibility of all citizens to take back people-power.”
The NLD had been criticized for failing to take an early stand on the referendum. Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political commentator based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, welcomed the NLD’s call now for a “No” vote and said it increased the party’s credibility.
Another Burmese political analyst, Htay Aung, said that dissidents inside Burma had called for a “No” vote, and predicted a “confrontation” ahead of the referendum.
Several activists had been attacked in Rangoon because of their views, he said—“These violent acts by the security forces and thugs backed by the junta don’t seem to stop,” he said.
Fourteen members of the Committee Representing the Peoples’ Parliament (CRPP), which was formed by successful candidates in the 1990 election, have also called for rejection of the proposed constitution by the Burmese people as well as internationally.
The document had been written without the participation of the NLD or ethnic party representatives and without meeting the expectations of ethnic nationalities, the CRPP members said.
They described the draft constitution as “a sham,” and said they expected the junta to claim a referendum victory “by cheating and fraud.”
I refer to Wai Moe's article, A Monk's Tale, in Irrawaddy Magazine.
It seems almost unthinkable that the intelligent military officers, who are no doubt Buddhists, could bring themselves to torture, humiliate and imprison the monks, sons of the Buddha, in those manners. Our sacred grounds, such as monastries and pagodas, have been turned upside down into almost like battlefields with the presence of soldiers. Under this military regime, such things have sadly become reality in Burma, which is a country known for its rich culture and values in Buddhism.
One monk mentioned to me once that if they just wish to reflect upon the meanings of Buddha's scriptures and gain merit for themselves, they can simply retreat to a faraway place and detach themselves from the social issues of the people. However, like U Pyinnya Jota, he feels that he cannot bring himself to neglect the hardship of the people and sees the need to do his part to alleviate their sufferings. Many, including some monks, have raised concern over the conflicting nature of the monks' involvement in politic as Buddhism advocates loving-kindness and forgiveness.
However, as a Buddhist, I simply wonder how we can bring ourselves to forgive those dictators who possess such brutality and disregard against our most revered religion beyond our wildest imaginations.
By Kyaw Zwa Moe
APRIL, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.4
[Source - Irrawaddy]
As analysts and activists debate how to respond to the regime’s draft constitution, others ask if it will cement the generals’ hold on power or trigger a popular uprising
FOR the generals who rule Burma, it is a step closer to the coveted goal of permanent military control of the country’s politics. For its detractors, it is a potential lightning rod for decades of pent-up discontent. But for most, it is still a mystery, as they wonder if this is really a distant light at the end of the tunnel or the headlights of an impending disaster.
The Burmese regime’s draft constitution, which Burmese voters will be asked to endorse or reject in a referendum in May, has drawn many reactions from people both inside and outside the country.
Although there is little consensus on the constitution, which was 14 years in the making, few doubt that the referendum, if it actually goes ahead, will be the junta’s most significant political move since elections in 1990, when voters unequivocally signaled a desire for an end to military rule.
For dissidents in Burma, that desire has only grown stronger over the past 18 years. They see the referendum as an opportunity to let the junta and the world know that that it is time for the generals to go.
“This is not a referendum,” said Tun Myint Aung, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group. “This is a chance to vote against military rule.”
“The regime has given us two choices—‘yes’ or ‘no.’ But the only real choice is, should we vote ‘no’ or just boycott?” he added.
Calls for a referendum boycott have been growing, but Tun Myint Aung, who spoke to The Irrawaddy by phone from a hiding place in Burma, insisted that only a vote “No” would send a clear message.
“It doesn’t matter what people think of the constitution,” the prominent activist said. “They will just be voting to express the anger that has been accumulating over the past 20 years.”
The Tatmadaw Chapter
Of all the people The Irrawaddy has spoken to about the referendum since it was announced on February 9, few have expressed any interest in the actual contents of the constitution, which was released by the junta in March. In the absence of public debate on the constitution, most discussion among exiles and dissidents has focused on ways to effectively turn the referendum against the junta.
The draft constitution does not fundamentally differ from a version of the “principles” of the constitution released by the Ministry of Information in August 2007, one month before the National Convention formally completed its work on the charter.
The draft contains an entire chapter spelling out the precise powers of the military. This chapter, entitled “Tatmadaw”(Burmese for armed forces), is something new in Burma’s constitutional history and represents the first explicit attempt to enable the armed forces to “participate in the national political leadership role of the State”—one of the stated goals of the first chapter of constitutional “principles.”
In concrete terms, this means that 25 percent of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament would be filled with military appointees selected by the Tatmadaw commander in chief. That is, 110 members of the 440-seat lower house, or People’s Parliament, and 56 members of the 224-seat upper house, or National Parliament, would be selected from within the ranks of the armed forces.
The powers of the commander in chief also extend to the selection of the president and two vice presidents. Each of these positions would be filled by individuals selected by the People’s Parliament, the National Parliament and a committee of military officials appointed by the commander in chief, ensuring that a member of the armed forces would occupy at least one of these top government positions—most likely the presidency, since the Tatmadaw exercises considerable influence over both houses of parliament. The commander in chief, meanwhile, would possess powers equal to those of the two vice presidents.
While all of these measures are intended to give the military considerable power over the government, there would also be guarantees that this influence doesn’t go in both directions. Parliament would not be permitted to discuss or interfere in military affairs, including defense spending. Under the new constitution, “The Tatmadaw has the right to independently administer all affairs concerning the armed forces.”
No Room to Maneuver
Critics of the constitution say that it will only serve to legitimize military rule, while reducing parliament to a toothless institution with no more power than the hand-picked National Convention which drafted it.
“Parliament will become a rubber stamp to endorse the commander in chief’s proposals,” said Aung Din, the executive director of the Washington, DC-based US Campaign for Burma, in an open letter calling on the Burmese people to reject “the military regime’s sham constitution.”
Others say that giving the ruling generals the powers they want will only embolden them to step up their oppression.
“Right now, they are ruling the country without any legal authority, and yet they treat citizens and religious leaders brutally,” said Ashin Pyinnya Jota, a leading member of the All Burma Monks Alliance. “If the constitution comes into force, it will only make them worse.”
But others ask what the alternatives are. Some argue that it would be better to accept the constitution and use it as a basis for future democratic changes. This is a position taken both by apologists for the junta and by pragmatists who point out that 20 years of resistance to the regime have yielded little in the way of progress.
One outspoken advocate of the constitution is Dr Nay Win Maung, a member of the so-called “Third Force” group founded during an international Burma conference in Singapore in 2006. This group, which claims to be neither pro-junta nor pro-opposition, has called for more engagement with the regime and an end to sanctions.
In an open letter obtained by The Irrawaddy, Nay Win Maung called on National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi to endorse the constitution and focus on elections to be held in 2010. This is the only way to ensure that the party is not disenfranchised, he said.
“This time, Burmese people should be smart enough and set their emotions aside, so as not to [create] another deadlock,” he wrote, adding that whatever the outcome of the referendum, it was certain that the constitution would ultimately be rectified at a later day.
In response to the letter, Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political commentator based in Thailand, agreed that it was time to take a more forward-looking approach. “We have to stop living in the past. It only prolongs the deadlock and conflict,” he said.
However, others say it is naïve to believe that the regime is offering the country a way forward.
“The junta just wants to be old wine in a new bottle,” said Win Min, a Thailand-based Burmese political analyst. “If the junta wants the opposition to endorse their rule, they must compromise for national reconciliation.”
Win Min points to clauses in the constitution that effectively block future changes as the greatest hurdle to acceptance.
“If we cannot modify the constitution, democratization in Burma cannot grow,” he said.
Under Section 4 (a) of Chapter 12, “Amendment of the Constitution,” any suggested change would need to be sponsored by at least 20 percent of parliament members. This would be followed by a parliamentary vote, which would require over 75 percent support before the proposed amendment could be put to a national referendum. More than fifty percent of voters would have to approve of the amendment before it could come into effect.
With 25 percent of seats going to the military, it would be effectively impossible to pass any amendments that the commander in chief did not approve of. Moreover, in the chapter on the powers of the Tatmadaw, the armed forces bear responsibility for “safeguarding the State Constitution.” This principle can be invoked at any time to prevent amendments that the military sees as inimical to its interests.
At this stage, debate about how the constitution can be reconfigured to make it more democratic is still largely academic. It is also, in the view of some exiled opposition activists, irrelevant.
“Some experts think endorsing the constitution is better than nothing. But people will not see it like this,” said Aung Moe Zaw, a secretary of the exiled opposition’s umbrella group, the National Council of the Union of Burma. “People want to see a long-term guarantee for their future—real democracy and freedom.”
“If the NLD endorses this unjust constitution, people in Burma will object. People will go their own way,” he added.
Even setting aside the question of whether the opposition would be able to alter the constitution to meet the democratic needs of the people, it remains unclear how civilians would function within a military-dominated parliament. Even the normal functions of a parliamentary opposition party could be regarded as hostile to national unity and thus subject to draconian restrictions.
Another concern of the opposition is that the constitution effectively bars Aung San Suu Kyi from occupying a leadership position. As the widow of British scholar Michael Aris and mother of two sons who are British citizens, Suu Kyi would have no right to lead Burma, according to the draft constitution, which states that “the President of the Union himself [and his] parents, spouse [and] children … shall not owe allegiance to a foreign power, shall not be a subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country.”
Ethnic opposition groups also have cause for concern, as their claims to autonomy would also be severely constrained. As Aung Din of the US Campaign for Burma noted, ethnic state legislatures would also have military appointees occupying 25 percent of seats.
“The expectations of ethnic nationalities to obtain the right of self-determination will never be realized, as unelected military officials will effectively intervene in their State affairs,” said Aung Din. “This sham constitution systematically denies equality among all ethnic nationalities and self-determination, demanded by all ethnic groups for a long time.”
World Opinion Divided
As Burmese debate the pros and cons of the constitution, the international community also remains divided over the junta’s latest attempt to set the terms of political change in Burma. While neighboring countries broadly support the constitutional referendum as a step forward, Western critics of the regime, particularly the United States, have dismissed it out of hand.
“It has to begin somewhere and now it has a clear, definite beginning,” said the chief of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Surin Pitsuwan, soon after the referendum was announced. “I think it is a development in the right direction.”
A “Vote No” rally in front of the NLD headquarters in Rangoon on March 27.
The United Nations, which has attempted to mediate between the regime and the democratic opposition, was more guarded in its assessment. In a statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the Burmese junta to “make the constitution-making process inclusive, participatory and transparent in order to ensure that any draft constitution is broadly representative of the views of all the people of Myanmar [Burma].”
The US, which has long been the regime’s most outspoken critic, was more explicit about the shortcomings of the constitution-making process, drawing attention to the ongoing suppression of democratic rights in Burma.
In a statement released after the regime declared its intention to hold a referendum, Sean McCormack, a US State Department spokesperson, said, “No referendum held under these conditions—a pervasive climate of fear in which virtually the entire population, including Aung San Suu Kyi, is under detention, and the Burmese people not being allowed to participate in or even discuss the drafting of a constitution—can be free, fair or credible.”
In late February, in a move that confirmed suspicions that the junta intended to stage manage the referendum, its top leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, signed into effect a law that threatens dissenters with heavy penalties for opposing the referendum. Under the Referendum Law for the Approval of the Draft Constitution, anybody who publicly criticizes the referendum faces a fine and a three-year prison sentence.
Thein Nyunt, a lawyer in Rangoon, remarked that the current law is even more severe than similar legislation enacted ahead of a referendum in 1973. “Under the previous law, anyone who was against the referendum could be sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. But now people can receive three years’ imprisonment under the terms of the present law.”
A Final Showdown?
Against this backdrop of deepening repression and a mixed international response, many activists suspect that the real referendum will take place not in the polling booths, but on the streets.
“We don’t see it as a final battle, but it will reach that point,” said student activist Tun Myint Aung, who noted that the last constitution drafted under military rule was ultimately scrapped under pressure from the popular uprising in 1988.
In a sign of growing frustration in Burma, in late March a 26-year-old man set himself on fire at Rangoon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda, a religious site that has often served as a focal point of political protests. Reports suggested that he was acting out of desperation over economic hardships and political frustration.
Observers of Burma’s economy have noted that conditions have only gotten worse since a drastic hike in fuel prices triggered protests last year. Although the regime has put a lid on dissent since its crackdown on monk-led demonstrations in September, it remains vulnerable to economically inspired unrest, which could easily assume a more political nature amid the push to strong-arm the population into endorsing an unpopular constitution.
The lack of leadership from the NLD and disappointment with the international response to the junta’s brutal crackdown, have led many to the conclusion that people power is the only remaining option.
“In the entire history of the world, there has never been a dictator who willingly gave up power once he had it firmly in his hands,” said respected Burmese journalist Ludu Sein Win in a recorded message released in March. “And there are no countries in the world which have gained liberation through the help of the United Nations.”
“Don’t waste your time dreaming about dialogue and considering help from the UN Security Council,” the 68-year-old journalist and former political prisoner added. “We already have the power to force out the military dictatorship. That power is the force and strength of every Burmese citizen.”
Whether the regime’s exercise in manipulating public opinion succeeds or seriously backfires may prove more important than its efforts to enshrine its control through a new constitution.
In the end, the junta may find that its efforts to control the will of the people could unleash a political firestorm.