Burma's Sham Elections
by Benedict Rogers
Last September, as the demonstrations in Burma were growing, I was on the India-Burma border visiting Burmese refugees. The stories I heard illustrate the horror occurring on a daily basis inside Burma. I met a man who had been arrested by the Burma Army, and hung upside down for an entire night, with soldiers beating him and banging his body against a pillar continuously. Another man was beaten so badly he is now paralyzed. Yet another described how in Burma’s prison camps, prisoners are shackled and chained, yoked like oxen and forced to plough fields. One refugee who'd been to the prison camps told how a group of prisoners who had attempted to escape were bound and hung above a fire, repeatedly stabbed, and then placed in a tub of salt water.
These are the barbarities faced by the people of Burma who go to the polls next month for the first time in 18 years. They will vote in a referendum on a new constitution proposed by Burma’s illegal military regime. The last time it held a vote, in 1990, the regime was shocked that despite all its efforts to undermine the opposition and intimidate the voters, it still lost the elections. This time, it has learned from experience—and has introduced every possible means of rigging the ballot in advance.
It is difficult to imagine a more farcical charade. When the regime rejected the United Nation’s request for international monitors during the referendum, it lost any last semblance of credibility. What kind of referendum is it where those who campaign against the proposed constitution are subject to a jail sentence of at least three years?
Millions of Burmese are disenfranchised. Buddhist monks and nuns, who number 500,000, are denied the vote—a price for their courageous demonstrations last September which were brutally crushed. Religious leaders from other faiths are also excluded. Over 500,000 internally displaced people on the run in the jungles of eastern Burma, as well as the 700,000 Muslim Rohingyas, treated as non-citizens and therefore stateless, are banned from participating. Millions living in conflict zones in the ethnic states, as well as refugees who have fled to neighboring countries and exiles further afield, will also be excluded.
The junta’s game plan is not subtle. It plans to rubber-stamp its new constitution which, in turn, will enshrine military rule. The constitution drafting process completely excluded Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, as well as the major representatives of the ethnic groups. Most of the members of parliament elected in 1990 are in prison or exile, and Ms. Suu Kyi is in her 12th year of house arrest. The National Convention, which drafted the guidelines for the constitution, involved no debate among the handpicked delegates, and none of the proposals made by the few ethnic representatives who did participate were adopted. Law 5/96 imposed prison terms of up to 20 years for discussing the constitution process.
The end product is a constitution which offers no improvement in human rights and democracy—and simply enshrines military rule. The commander-in- chief of the Burma Army will appoint 25% of the national legislators. He will also appoint the minister of defense, who will report to him. The army chief can seize power at any point, if he happens to believe that national security is threatened. There will be no independent judiciary, and the constitution cannot be amended for 10 years.
Political prisoners will be barred from contesting elections, and the president must be a person with military experience who has not married a foreigner. Ms. Suu Kyi is by definition ruled out.
The junta hopes that this sham will fool the international community into a belief that it is changing, so that pressure will ease. The international community, especially Burma’s neighbors, must not fall for this trick. If the regime proceeds with this plan, and continues to ignore calls from the U.N. for dialogue with the democracy movement, tough action should follow. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should take charge of Burma policy. Burma’s best friends—China, India, Russia, Thailand and Singapore—should end their policies of appeasement. Other Asian nations, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan, must speak out more forcefully. A universal arms embargo should be imposed, with their support. And the U.N. Security Council should refer Burma’s military leaders to the International Court for investigation into crimes against humanity.
This is a regime guilty of every possible human rights violation, including a campaign of ethnic cleansing involving the widespread, systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labor, the use of human minesweepers and the destruction of over 3,200 villages in eastern Burma since 1996. There is arguably a case of genocide to be examined. Over 70,000 children have been taken off the streets and forced to join the Burma Army—the highest proportion of child soldiers in the world. More than 1,800 political prisoners are in jail, subjected to horrific torture. Burma’s neighbors, and the rest of the world, should not be prepared to tolerate this any longer.
Mr. Rogers works for the human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and serves as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. He has made over 20 visits to Burma and its borders, and is the author of A Land without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People (2004, Monarch Books). The REVIEW will publish a longer article on Burma by the author in our upcoming May issue.