Yesterday’s elections confirm more of the brutally same — despite what you might hear from the wishful thinkers.
Burma’s agony continues. On Sunday the military dictatorship held a rigged election to cloak itself in civilian garb. The people of Burma will continue to suffer under one of the worst governments on earth.
Gen. Ne Win seized power in 1962. Nearly a half century later the country is ruled by a junta headed by Gen. Than Shwe. The military’s crimes are many. It has imposed a corrupt and brutal dictatorship; conducted a genocidal war against dissident ethnic groups; suppressed civil and political liberties; kept the country desperately poor; and enriched well-connected allies at public expense. The government even impeded international assistance after devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
The regime has repeatedly attempted to rebrand itself. For instance, the junta once called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council, SLORC, but shifted to the State Peace and Development Council. Alas, the only peace the SPDC believes in is of the grave and the only development it supports is of junta members’ bank accounts. The generals occasionally ousted and imprisoned each other.
In 1990 the junta foolishly held an election. Like the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and Polish Communists, who also called free ballots, the Burmese military overestimated its popular support. The Burmese people decisively rejected the regime, overwhelmingly voting for Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. So the generals voided the result, suppressed the NLD, and quarantined Suu Kyi, subjecting her to house arrest for 15 of the last 21 years.
There has been no mellowing over the years. In 2003 the regime promised a “roadmap to discipline-flourishing democracy,” which emphasized discipline over democracy. The SPDC ruthlessly suppressed protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007. The following year the junta stuffed ballot boxes in a referendum on its authoritarian constitution, drafted without popular input. The generals routinely harassed Suu Kyi and sentenced many of her supporters to long prison terms. The regime reached ceasefire agreements with a number of rebellious ethnic groups, but since then has begun demanding that the forces disarm, a nonstarter for people who have suffered from unlimited military barbarity for decades.
The junta’s latest strategy is another election, for a two-house national parliament and 14 state and regional assemblies. However, this ballot was rigged from the start to prevent any chance of the opposition triumphing. First, there was no independent election commission and no foreign observers were allowed. No electioneering, let along criticism of the government was permitted. The media is largely controlled by the government; even nominally private publications are censored. So are sermons by monks. The cost of registering to run alone exceeded the per capita GDP. Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, complained: the vote was “being conducted in a climate of fear, intimidation, and resignation.”
Second, some 2000 imprisoned democracy activists, including Suu Kyi and many other NLD members, were deemed ineligible to run. Political parties were required to expel members with “criminal” records, including for political offenses, to contest the ballot.
Thus, the NLD, the nation’s only legitimate governing force, refused to participate. The generals then dissolved the party (along with nine others). NLD activists responded by urging a boycott. The regime threatened to jail them while promising development projects to neighborhoods where residents marked their ballots ahead of time. The government also barred people from participating in many eastern ethnic areas, while in others rebellious groups refused to participate.
Third, the regime turned military apparatchiks into civilian candidates. Through the misnamed United Solidarity and Development Party the generals fielded candidates to contest all 1,163 offices at stake. The equally misnamed National Unity Party, representing Ne Win, the original dictator who was ousted in 1988, put up 999 candidates. Richard Horsey, a former UN official, contended that victories by some of the latter would demonstrate that the military is not monolithic, but the NUP no more represents the Burmese people does than the USDP. Both military factions are paranoid, xenophobic, and despotic.
In contrast, the National Democratic Force, a rump group of former NLD-activists, only contested 163 seats. A number of other small parties, including several ethnic-based organizations, ran a few candidates. A number of independents also stood for office. Still, Burma’s foreign minister, Nyan Win, claimed: “Such a large participation made it crystal clear that the elections become virtually inclusive.”
Fourth, parties were required to affirm support for the 2008 constitution imposed by the SPDC. That document reserves one-fourth of the lower house and one-third of the upper house to the military, allows the “civilian” president to turn power over to the military, creates a National Defense and Security Council, and permits the military-controlled Union Election Commission to dismiss legislators for “misbehavior.”
Authority will not be transferred. The generals will remain in charge. The Burmese people are not fooled. Ashin Issariya, a founding member of the All Burma Monks Alliance, observed: “It will be the same faces and the same system that we have been living with for decades. The name ‘elections’ does not change anything for us.” Long-time NLD activist Win Tin said the election “will just help the military get what they want — to rule for a century or more.” Dot Lay Mu of the Karen National Union warned: the generals are using the poll to “consolidate and prolong” their control.
The junta’s objective is another image makeover. Today the SPDC is widely reviled around the world and subject to U.S. and European sanctions. The generals hope to gain greater international acceptance.
The international response to the junta has been divided. The U.S. and Europe have campaigned against the regime, but Burma’s neighbors have refused to join in. China supports the generals irrespective of how many people they kill. India is economically active in Burma and, along with Malaysia and Singapore, trains SPDC military officers. Other countries, including Thailand, have refused to do more than apply limited pressure, valuing Burma’s natural resources more than Burmese human rights.
Now Asian governments are lauding the poll while Western governments are unsure how to respond. Some analysts argue that even a flawed election presages possible political liberalization.
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H/T to National Review Online