Friday, September 17, 2010

Junta’s Strategic Election

The Burmese military junta has declared ‘free and fair’ multi-party elections will be held on November 7. However, the military’s announcement has been met mostly with skepticism by those familiar with the regime’s appalling human rights records and history of brutally stifling all dissent. The elections are in accordance with the new Burmese constitution, which was approved in a May 2008 referendum widely regarded as rigged.

The international community has expressed concern that the first general election in Burma in 20 years may not run fairly or freely following the issuance of a new law that effectively bans democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from participating in the contest. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate described the new election laws as “repressive” and “unjust.”

UN Secretary General in September urged the Burmese authorities to ensure conditions conducive to a fully inclusive and participatory electoral process.

UN Secretary General said that a ministerial-level meeting of the Group of Friends of Myanmar is expected to be held in New York on Sept. 27 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

It is disheartening to see that the elections have been “rigged” from the start. Burma’s election laws are very strict, which has already forced the military regime’s main opponent, the National League for Democracy, to decide not to register for the elections.

Moreover, the United Nations, members of ASEAN, and numerous Western nations have insisted that the elections will not be credible without the participation of Suu Kyi.

In the last free election in 1990, the Burmese people overwhelmingly rejected military rule, awarding the National League for Democracy party more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament. Yet the military has refused to allow the NLD to form a government. In the 20 years since that election, Burmese democracy activists have faced imprisonment, intimidation, torture and death as they have peacefully voiced demands for justice, individual and ethnic rights, and a democratic form of government that is representative of all Burma’s people.

Ever since their embarrassing loss in 1990, the military regime has been afraid to hold elections in fear of again losing.

U Win Tin, a member of the Central Executive Committee and a co-founder of the National League for Democracy, wrote in an article that the showcase election planned by the military regime makes a mockery of the freedom sought by Burmese people and is simply intended to make military dictatorship permanent.

Key ministries including justice, defense and the interior will remain under the control of the military, and under the 2008 constitution, a quarter of the 440 parliament seats will be reserved for military officials. People holding military permissions are not permitted to contest the election. As such, twenty members of the junta, including Prime Minister Thein Sein, have retired from their posts to participate in the election. With the primary opponents out of the way, military leaders are resigning left and right from their posts to run in the 2010 elections as civilians. Furthermore, already one-fourth of the new Myanmar Parliament has been reserved for military officials, which means the officials who have resigned and are campaigning as civilians are most likely being positioned to take the remaining 75% of the seats in support of the military. The military plans to gain virtually all the seats of power.

A 224-member House of Nationalities will have 168 elected candidates and 56 nominated by the military chief, while the 440-member House of Representatives will have 330 elected civilians and 110 military representatives. In total, there will be 1,163 seats in the national and regional parliaments elected by the people. At the same time, the results of the 1990 elections were annulled as they did not comply with the new election laws.

All of this has led the new laws to being described as a “farce” by the Philippines and a “mockery” by the United States.

The United States and other Western governments have roundly criticized Burma’s election plans as undemocratic. They have pressed the junta to release all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi. Several countries impose economic and political sanctions on Burma over its human rights record.

But observers don’t expect any concessions from the junta before the election. In any event, Western influence in Burma is far weaker than that of neighboring countries like Thailand, China, and India, which have invested far more in Burma’s resource-based economy.

Some scholars said that the Burmese military junta has ensured that its hand-picked candidates will win in November by imposing restrictions on opponents, including expensive filing fees, tight deadlines and limits on who can be on the ballot.

Observers, especially pro-democracy supporters, have indignantly expressed outrage at the military regime’s so-called “fair elections”. Japan and other Asian countries have tried to convince the military dictators to hold elections that are actually democratic. The European Union, after considering Burma in the European Union Foreign Affairs Council meeting, has added another year to their political sanctions on Burma after the Asian country’s failure to respond to concerns about its elections being unfair.

Regardless of the mockery that the 2010 Myanmar elections may make of the democratic process, it would be an even bigger blow for the country if no genuine opposition participates. Under the new laws, the NLD will face dissolution as a legal entity if it continues with its current plan to boycott the election.

The Central executive council of NLD party has decided that it will not take part in the elections unless the following three demands are met: the release of political prisoners (approximately 2,100, of which around 400 are members of the NLD), observers be allowed to monitor the elections, and the Constitution of 2008 is revisited and examined. However, military junta has failed to respond to any of the demands of the NLD.

Despite the undemocratic clauses of the 2008 Constitution on which the 2010 election is based, it will essentially allow a pseudo-civilian government to be formed after the election. This will include the re-introduction of a parliamentary system in Burma, albeit with 25 per cent of the seats guaranteed for the military.

Despite the unfair practices and challenges any opposition party may face, the election also provides an opportunity for opposition groups to challenge the SPDC, by competing for seats against junta-backed proxy parties.

The Election Commission said 37 other parties would take part in the vote and that campaigning can take place from Sept. 24 through Oct. 30, but parties must refrain from making speeches that "tarnish the image" of the military.

The commission announced that five political parties were disbanded after they failed to renew registration as a political party for the Nov. 7 election.

Along with the NLD, four other parties were disbanded: the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, the Union Pa-O National Organization, the Shan State Kokang Democratic Party and the Wa National Development Party.

NLD spokesman Nyan Win in September 15 said the party will contend that the commission has no authority to dissolve an existing political party, only parties registered by the commission for the upcoming election.

The government established the Union Solidarity and Development Association, which is largely seen as their ‘grassroots’ political arm, in 1993. The organization claims to have around half the population as members. The National Unity Party, which contested the 1990 election as the main pro-government party and won 10 seats, has also registered to run.

Reuters estimates that six parties in total are allied to the government. The junta itself, according to the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, will also be setting up two or three proxy parties to contest the election.

The Burmese military junta is notorious for its cunning and trickery. Therefore it is seen as difficult to believe they are capable of running an election with credibility, exclusivity, and fairness in 2010.

Top NLD leader Win Tin’s suggestion to Senior U.S. diplomat Mr. Kurt Campbell on 10 May 2010 was for the U.S. “not to recognize the results of the upcoming election, which will be held without the two important elements — credibility and exclusivity — that the international community has demanded.”

Ethnic issues and the Elections

The elections will be held the way the military junta wants them to be irrespective of the pressure exerted on it by neighbors or the international community. However, some expect a few concessions, such as the release of political prisoners and the acceptance of observers from neighboring countries, may be forthcoming just before the elections.

With or without the concessions, the biggest difficulty in creating an inclusive process may be in convincing the ethnic minorities that there is a reason for them to take part in the electoral process, even if they are not granted the concessions concerning autonomy that they desire.

40% the country’s population is composed of ethnic minorities and they control a sizable land mass all around the periphery of the nation. They joined the union at the time of Burmese independence from England. At the time, they were promised autonomy at a later date. However, autonomy has never been granted to any of the ethnic states.

The military junta has entered into ceasefire agreements with 17 ethnic rebel groups between 1989-94 with concessions to retain their arms and control of some parts of the territories occupied by the ethnic minorities.

In the 1990 elections most of the ethnic groups had joined hands and had fared well (especially the Shan National League for Democracy).

As a prelude to a smooth election the military junta has been pressuring the ethnic groups to transform their armies into border guards under the leadership of the Burmese Army, and to form their own political parties to contest the forthcoming elections.

Most of the ethnic armies (particularly the stronger ones such as the United Wa State Party (UWSP), the Kachin Independence organization (KIO) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) have refused to be transformed into border guards and to contest the 2010 election. The few groups that may be taking part in the elections are perhaps hoping to take advantage of the political space made available, particularly at the regional level.

Many fear that once the 2010 elections are over and the new constitution is in force, the ethnic minorities will lose the few rights and privileges they have been enjoying until now.

The Constitution sets out a “self administered division” for the Wa and UWSA (the biggest of the ethnic minorities with 15,000–20,000 fighters) and plans to create 14 assemblies in areas that are home to the major ethnic groups, making the first offer of political space to the non-Burmese. However the regional assemblies will be under the supervision of the junta, which has the power to appoint one-fourth of the members to each assembly, as well as the chief minister of each region.

Asean leaders view the new Constitution and the election as positive steps by the junta. They may see the Constitution as a tool to recognize the political rights of the ethnic nationalities, since it grants the major ethnic states their own local parliaments as well as self-administrative areas for some ethnic minorities.

Those are positive changes, but why has the disarmament of the ethnic cease-fire groups, especially in the cases of the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and United Wa State Army (UWSA), remained such a stumbling block? What are the difficulties behind this plan?

After an unsuccessful series of negotiations and postponements of the deadline for transforming into a Border Guard Force (BGF) last year, the KIA, with just 4,000 troops, is still in talks with the junta. The latest KIA proposal is to totally give up its arms if the junta honors the principles of the Panglong Agreement.

From a structural viewpoint, Burma’s new Constitution does appear to embrace a decentralized system with legislative power granted to state and regional Hluttaws [Parliaments] as well as the Leading [legal] Bodies within Self-Administered Areas.

Section 56 of the Constitution grants the UWSA-controlled areas in Shan State the status of a Self-Administered Division in a geographical area including six townships. In effect, it is equal to the other five Self-Administered Zones, which include the Naga, Danu, Pa-O, Pa Laung and Kokang.

However, the degree of freedom granted to the lowest legislative bodies in both administrative areas is so controlled that they will not have the autonomy necessary to make a single law governing their area if it is believed to be against the laws enacted by the Shan State Hluttaw, which also must be consistent with the laws of the national Hluttaw [Parliament], according to Section 198 of the Constitution.

In the national Hluttaw, the junta is assured of at least 25 percent of the seats (by the Constitution), in effect granting it a veto power to reject any legislation that the generals' oppose.

As a consequence, the border guard force proposal and the limited legislative powers granted to major ethnic groups in the Constitution are both major obstacles to national reconciliation. The major ethnic cease-fire groups will not accept the junta’s BGF plan and so far are reluctant to form political parties to contest the election, in effect granting it credibility.

After previously rejecting the registration application of the Kachin State Progressive Party (KSPP), Burma's Election Commission (EC) has in September 16 rejected the applications of 14 leading KSPP members, including its founder Tu Ja, who alternatively applied to run as individuals.

With such provisions the ethnic groups will lose their right to choose their chiefs and their self-determination rights, and hence their opportunity to voice their dissent. Some analysts have predicted that the civil war of six decades now in its ebb may erupt in full swing if the military junta is not able to settle the ethnic minority issues before the election.

It is incumbent on the ethnic minorities to come together and pose a united front if even some semblance of autonomy is to be achieved in their areas.

Refugees and Election

There is no doubt that the constitution is meant to perpetuate Military Despotism because the military is to be entrenched in every institution of the state. On the other hand, this constitution is also meant to establish an “Authoritarian Centralist” government. There is much concern that it will deny all democratic and human rights, as well as all rights of ethnic nationalities.

The generals, no doubt, now believe that there is no reason to hand power over to other groups that would benefit from what they have created: billions of dollars worth of natural gas revenue; a 20-year investment in the country’s infrastructure development, including mega hydro-power projects and dams; and expanding foreign trade, mainly with neighboring countries.

However, the military, for 20 years, has faced the fact that it is considered illegitimate both domestically and internationally. Also, despite being effectively marginalized, the armed ethnic groups have generally given little ground to the junta's demands. The generals have failed to solve the half-century old armed ethnic conflicts, the extreme poverty of the majority population, the threats of illegal drugs and the threat of endemic diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The Burmese military junta expressed on 12 May 2010 that Burma has no need for foreign observers to monitor its first elections in two decades, despite international concerns that the polls will lack legitimacy.

There have been concerns from aid agencies that the upcoming election could see a growing number of refugees fleeing to Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh and China, due to alleged government repression, poverty and low-level ethnic conflict. Ceasefires between the military government and ethnic groups were also deteriorating.

Hundreds of thousands of Burmese lived in neighboring countries in refugee-like circumstances. Many may have fled Burma because they feared persecution.

At the end of June 2010, about 88,900 refugees and asylum-seekers were registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, according to the UNHCR website.

Of those, 82,200 were refugees from Burma, comprising 38,700 Chin, 10,000 Rohingya, 7,000 Burmese Muslims, 3,800 Mon, 3,600 Kachin and other ethnic minorities from Burma.

2009 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons shows that the largest number of refugees who were resettlement with UNHCR assistance departed from Nepal (17,500), Thailand (16,800), Malaysia (7,500).

It shows that Malaysia was the fourth most important destination country in 2009, with more than 40,000 asylum claims registered with the UNHCR office, mostly people from Myanmar (94 %). The Global report says that the highest number of new asylum claim was filed by individuals originating from Zimbabwe (153,200) and Myanmar (Burma) 48,600. Three-quarters of asylum claims lodged by citizens of Myanmar were registered.

About 500,000 Burmese migrants work in Malaysia, legally and illegally, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based Burma Workers’ Rights Protection Committee.

The flow of refugees from Burma to Thailand, Malaysia and other countries has cost Burma’s neighbours millions of dollars in food and humanitarian assistance. The Burma Refugee Organization calls on officials of impacted ASEAN countries to measure the financial cost of hosting refugees displaced from Burma, and to request financial compensation from Burma’s military junta for costs incurred in caring for the refugees.

It asks the government of Malaysia to address the trafficking, selling and slavery of Burmese and other migrants within Malaysia and across its border with Thailand. As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Malaysia is urged to consider alternatives to detention for refugees and asylum seekers, especially for women and children.

ASEAN has a major role to play in the elections, however flawed it may be. It has to function as a link between Myanmar and the international community and vice-versa. Myanmar can be persuaded to have observers at least from ASEAN.

The international community, while exerting pressure for release of political prisoners and for the elections to be inclusive, free and fair, should be prepared to interact with the new government and seek opportunities for positive changes towards democracy.

We are extremely disappointed about the junta’s preparations for the upcoming elections and urge all concerned parties to exert pressure in order to ensure that the Burmese military regime is not able to make the upcoming elections a complete sham.

Blogger Demowaiyan, Alinsek & Kamikaze

16, September, 2010

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