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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 22

Burma: Referendum and Resistance

Friday 23 May 2008, by J Sri Raman

It is a bestseller, but barely popular with its readers. The 194-page volume, which hit the bookstands in Burma on April 24, was the long-awaited draft Constitution authored by the country’s military junta, without consulting most of its people. The draft was published just a fortnight before the people are due to vote on it, apparently as a formality.

The large number of the book’s buyers, especially the young, may not be hoping to play a major role in the national referendum scheduled for May 10. But they are obviously keen, if not desperate, to know the fate and the future that await them and Burma’s pro-democracy movement.

Some of it is already known. The previously leaked portions of the draft made it plain enough that the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta styles itself, was not exactly planning to hand democracy on a platter to the people.

By its most widely publicised provision, the draft laid down that “a person who is entitled to the rights and privileges of a foreign government, or a citizen of a foreign country” could not run for office in the envisaged democracy. The provision was clearly meant to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi, the primary symbol of the country’s pro-democracy struggle, from holding any office.

Suu Kyi, the top leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been under house arrest for a total of 12 years now. She had led her party to a landslide victory in the last general election in 1990, and the junta had responded by installing its own rule for an indefinite period. Sixtytwo years old now, she will be disqualified for any official post because she had a British husband, Michael Aris, who died in 1999.

The draft, which the junta took 15 years to prepare, also makes sure full civilian rule is not restored and the military is assured of an important place in the new dispensation as well. No less than 25 per cent of the seats in both Houses of Parliament and State Assemblies will be reserved for the Army. More than 75 per cent of votes in the Houses, however, will be needed for any change in the Constitution. No amendment, in other words, will be possible without the Army’s support.

The NLD has called not for a boycott of the referendum, but for a vote against the draft. Few informed observers believe, however, the referendum will be a free and fair exercise. Arrangements for rigging the voting are already in place, according to reliable reports. By one of the rules, for example, only the last ten voters in any booth will be entitled to monitor the counting of votes, and these will be from the regime’s supporters, provided by the infamous Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a body of “civilian thugs” of military creation, used to break up pro-democracy rallies last year.

THE referendum will not be any the more reliable for the fact that the junta has disallowed any monitoring of the exercise by any United Nations agency or the European Union, as witnessed recently in Pakistan and Nepal. The military rulers, who have rejected such monitoring as a monstrous attack on Burma’s “sovereignty”, have not so far agreed even to the coverage of the event by foreign correspondents.

While unceremoniously rejecting the demands of the pro-democracy camp, the draft seeks to win over the estranged ethnic groups by offering them autonomy of an undefined kind. These armed groups, with the bitter experience of decades-long battles with the junta and the Burmans (the dominant ethnic group), however, are the ones to call for the boycott of the referendum.

Movements of the marginalised groups like the Karens, Shans and Kachins, in fact, have proclaimed they are keeping their powder dry as they fear a ferocious military onslaught on them after the referendum. The Karen National Union (KNU), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the Shan State Army (SSA) have fought Rangoon for long, with the KNU carrying on a 60-year-long armed struggle in east Burma. Some of the groups like the SSA had entered into ceasefire agreements with the junta, but may now threaten to revise that stand.

This is not the only reason to fear the referendum may not lead to restoration of democracy and peace. Far more frightening, for some, are rumblings within the junta. The referendum is not popular with all sections of the rulers, to go by some inside accounts. Junta-watchers do not rule out sections loyal to SPDC Vice-Chairman General Maung Aye staging a revolt, at an opportune time ahead, against Chairman Than Shwe, the 75-year-old senior General known to be suffering from acute diabetes and breathing problems.

In this precarious, even perilous, pre-referendum situation, what is the stand of the “democratic world”, led by the USA?

Burma and its struggle have not made media headlines for months now. Statements have emanated off and on from Western capitals, stressing the need for tougher sanctions against Burma by themselves. Washington and its allies have, however, meticulously continued to avoid hitting the junta where it might hurt most.

The repeated demand of the pro-democracy movement for cessation of Western cooperation with the military regime in the vital energy sector continues to fall on deaf ears. The US, for example, has failed noticeably to make Chevron, one of its largest energy companies, fall in line with its fervent anti-junta campaign in the world fora. Chevron continues to have a stake in the Yadana natural gas project and pipeline, with its chief executive, David O’ Reilly, claiming this has helped the poverty-stricken Burmese people, who have seen no benefit accruing to them from the ambitious enterprise at all.

(Courtesy: Truthout)

A freelance journalist and a peace activist, J. Sri Raman is the author of Flashpoint (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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