Monday, February 11, 2008

Burma: Empty promises amidst continued oppression

Burma's military government says it will hold a referendum on a new constitution in May and plans general elections in 2010. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, the news is being greeted with hope, but skepticism by both Burmese and foreign analysts.

The announcement by state-controlled media is being received with cautious optimism by Burmese who view the news as a possible step forward after more than four decades of military rule.

But, human-rights groups are warning it may be a tactic by the military government to ease international pressure to reform after it violently suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations last year. The crackdown on protest marches led by Buddhist monks killed at least 31 people and injured many more.

The opposition National League for Democracy, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has also reacted cautiously to the announcement about elections. A spokesman says it does not make sense to set a date for elections before the results of the referendum are known.

Spokeswoman Debbie Stothardt, of the human-rights group the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, says China is important in the equation.

"It is another delay tactic to get international pressure off Burma and also off China in the lead up to the Olympics," said Stothardt. "China has been supporting this regime and this has actually allowed this regime to be quite recalcitrant."

Burma's last general elections in 1990 were overwhelmingly won by the opposition National League for Democracy, but the military refused to acknowledge the victory. It has kept opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest much of the past 18 years.

In 2003, the military announced a so-called road map to democracy that included drafting a new constitution. Saturday's announcement said the document would be voted on this May. Burma's last constitutional referendum was held in 1974.

Stothardt says, if the military wants to show it is genuine about political reform it should open talks with the National League for Democracy and the ethnic-minority opposition leaders, many of whom remain under detention.

"If the regime wants to redeem itself and genuinely wants change to happen in Burma, it needs to release all the political prisoners and engage in a tripartite dialogue, with the opposition," added Stothardt. "This is the way to move forward to any kind of new constitution, referendum or fresh elections. Otherwise it is not going to work."

Under the draft constitution, Burma's military government is expected to extend its control over the new parliament with guarantees the military will hold 25 percent of the seats in the new assembly.

By Ron Corben
Published with the permission of Voice of America

Related news: There is an excellent article in the Christian Science Monitor written by Danna Harman, that takes a look at how Burma's ruling junta censors and monitors the internet and other media - and how the information hungry Burmese, find a way around it.