Today is polling day in Burma, the first elections in the country in twenty years. Yet instead of being a momentous occasion, these polls are at best meaningless and perhaps actually dangerous. Far from being a triumph of democracy and freedom, today is a body blow to the cause of liberty. Burma’s elections today are nothing but a sham, a charade, a masquerade, a fraud, a fake and a lie. The only change that will come from today is a change of clothing for the regime, from military uniform to civilian suits, and perhaps one or two new faces.
Just over a week ago, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he was “really expecting that this election will be a fair one and a credible one and an inclusive one,” and that it was “not too late” for this to happen. What world is he living in?
Here are just a few reasons why today is a charade:
- Only the regime-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and National Unity Party (NUP) can afford to field a full slate of over 1,000 candidates in all constituences, when the registration fee is US$500. For most ordinary people this is more than their annual income - GDP per capita is $400. The next two largest opposition parties can only afford to field 163 and 157 candidates each.
- There are widespread reports of vote rigging already, with ballots cast in advance or by officials on behalf of local people. Stories are already starting to emerge of people being harassed, intimidated, tricked, bribed and forced into voting for pro-regime parties.
- People serving prison sentences are disqualified as candidates. More than 2,203 political prisoners remain in jail, many of whom would wish to be candidates, including 413 NLD members.
- Several areas in the ethnic states have been told they are not eligible to hold voting, so hundreds of thousands are disenfranchised
- Election laws published earlier in the year impose an extraordinary range of restrictions on campaigning in the elections for opposition parties, and no meaningful canvassing, rallies, leafleting or hustings can possibly take place.
- All election literature is censured. Imagine in the last General Election, if Gordon Brown had the power to censor leaflets from the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats.
- Candidates are forbidden from making statements that "tarnish the image of the state". Under such a law, David Cameron could have been jailed for talking about a "broken society".
- Foreign journalists are banned and no international observers have been allowed.
But it isn't just the process of these elections that is the problem. Even if today was free and fair, which we know it will not be, the outcome would still be predetermined. The regime excluded Burma's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from participating, and as a result her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been banned. The NLD won over 82% of the parliamentary seats in 1990, and yet were never able to take their rightful place in Burm,a's government. Aung San Suu Kyi should have been Burma's President but instead has spent over 15 years under house arrest. The NLD had no choice but to boycott the elections, because to participate they would have had to expel Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and accept the new constitution - which would be intolerable.
The new Constitution, rammed through in a sham referendum in 2008 in the immediate aftermath of the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis, guarantees the military 25% of the parliamentary seats. Furthermore, to amend the Constitution will require a three-quarters majority - and so the military have a built-in veto.
The Constitution also gives the military immunity for past, present and future crimes. The President and Vice-Presidents must come from the military, and all powers lie with the President. Government ministers are appointed by the President, and Parliament has no right to question him over his policies or appointments. The President can choose whether he wishes to speak to Parliament. MPs are forbidden from criticising the constitution, and if they call for amendments they could be jailed. The Commander-in-Chief has the power to take control of the country if he believes national security is at risk. The Constitution does nothing for human rights, and has been described by one ethnic leader as "a death sentence" for ethnic diversity.
Today's elections may make matters worse in Burma. Not only will they perpetuate military rule, they may embolden the Generals to fulfil their desire to eliminate ethnic minoritiy resistance groups. The regime, empowered by the new Constitution, may unleash an escalated offensive against the Karen and other ethnic peoples in eastern Burma. At the same time, it may break its 16-year-old ceasire with the Kachin in northern Burma near China, resulting in a major humanitarian crisis.
These elections are all about protecting Senior General Than Shwe as he eases into retirement, and protecting his family and cronies. He wants to ensure an orderly succession to someone he trusts, but he will remain the power behind the scenes, just as Ne Win before him and Deng Xiaoping in China. It is also an attempt to buy legitimacy, because the junta hates the sanctions imposed on it and wants to try to shed its pariah status.
So what should the international community do on Monday, after today's polls. Here are a few thoughts:
- There should be a strong, unambiguous and if possible united rejection of this sham process. Today's election must not be given any credibility or legitimacy whatsoever.
- If the regime's offensives against the ethnic groups escalate, or a fresh conflict breaks out in Kachin State, the international community must stand ready to respond with humanitarian assistance. The principle of the Responsibility to Protect should be activated.
- Efforts must be made to build on the already growing momentum behind calls for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity. The UN Special Rapporteur has called for it, more than 13 countries including the UK, US, France, The Netherlands, Ireland, Australia and Canada support it, and a draft UN General Assembly resolution made public last week lays the foundations for it by urging the Burmese regime to hold "without further delay a full, transparent, effective, impartial and independent investigation into all reports of human rights violations, and to bring to justice those responsible in order to end impunity". In the full expectation that the regime will ignore such a call, the resolution offers "the assistance of the United Nations" in this matter. Governments must not be tempted to think that today's election changes this - if anything, it makes it even more imperative.
- Finally, Ban Ki-moon must take personal leadership of a revived UN effort to encourage the regime to enter into meaningful dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy movement and the ethnic nationalities. If Aung San Suu Kyi is freed next weekend, which is possible, the regime must be pressured to enter into a meaningful dialogue with her. The international community, at the same time, must send the regime a clear message that while her release is welcome, by itself it is no sign of progress. Sanctions and other forms of pressure must remain in place until there is meaningful change - the release of all political prisoners, an end to military offensives and the campaign of rape, torture and forced labour in the ethnic areas, and dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic groups. Once such benchmarks begin to be met, sanctions can gradually be eased. If such signs of progress do not materialise, sanctions could be incrementally tightened.
Today is not a day of celebration. Today is a day when we must stand in solidarity with the suffering people of Burma, and redouble our efforts. Today is a day when Ban Ki-moon, the entire UN system, the EU, China, India, Japan and ASEAN must reflect on Martin Luther King's words when he said:
"Cowardice asks the question 'Is it safe?'. Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?'. But Conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?'. And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right. The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge."
Burma, today, is such a moment for Ban Ki-moon. Where will he stand?
And for us? If we care about freedom, we must remember Martin Luther King's view that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". It is in our own interests to support the cause of freedom in Burma, because dictators cause suffering, oppression, corruption, misery and poverty, and therefore instability. Let us, today, remember the people of Burma when we hear Martin Luther King's challenge:
Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world ..... Our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? ... Or will there be another message -- of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
Freedom will not come to Burma today. But one day, Burma will be free, and we can play our part in helping the people of Burma in their struggle.