Burma's referendum: A done deal | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 05, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 05, 2008

Burma's referendum: A done deal

ON May 10, Burma goes to the polls to vote on a new constitution. A constitution that very few people have actually seen, and certainly one which cannot be criticised publicly. But the new constitution is going to move the country into a significantly new political era, even if the military leaders remain in power. A period of massive change is inevitable.
And Burma's military rulers are taking no chances, as they carefully orchestrate a "Yes" vote.
"To approve the state constitution is a national duty of the entire people, let us all cast a 'Yes' vote in the national interest," the state-run newspapers have urged ever since the referendum was announced, exactly a month before the polls.
In fact, the government is hoping for a unanimous vote, though that is inconceivable unless the results are completely rigged, something which most diplomats in Rangoon believe is highly likely. But public sentiment is far more difficult to test. There are no opinion polls available, so it is hard to get an informed impression.
Rangoon's taxi drivers -- a good weather vane of public opinion -- are of one mind: little is going to change by having a new constitution. "What's the point of voting, they [the military] just order everyone around and don't care what people think," said Min Thu a taxi driver in Rangoon. "If they promise to reduce the cost of petrol, then I would certainly vote."
"I'm going to vote 'yes' because I'm tired of the top brass running the country, and doing it very badly," said a Colonel who wanted to remain anonymous for safety reasons. "It's time to get them out of government and a new constitution is the only sure way of doing that," he added.
The poor farmers in Burma's once prosperous rice growing area in the centre of the country are delighted with the opportunity to tell the government what they think of them, a western aid worker told The Daily Star on condition of anonymity. "It's the first opportunity since the 1990 election that they have had to express themselves," she said. "And they see it as a referendum on the military government; so expect a resounding no from them."
But the regime is well aware of the regional variations there is likely to be, so there will be no announcement of the results at each polling station or even provincial level. The only announcement will come from the equivalent of the electoral commission in the capital Naypitdaw.
"This is very different from the 1990 elections, when the election results were made public at each local polling station," Zin Linn, a former political prisoner and now spokesman for the Burmese government in exile. "It means they will be able to manipulate the results to their own ends."
While the military government has been constantly promising the voting process will be transparent -- or they describe it held in a "systematic and fair manner." Most analysts believe it will be anything but free and fair. First of all the public or the opposition will not be allowed to scrutinise the counting. A senior general in the junta told military people and government officials in Rangoon recently that only the last ten voters before the poll closes would be allowed to stay and witness the actual count.
"These last 10 voters who can monitor the counting of the votes by the poll commission members (around 15 people) will certainly by members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association," who Than Shwe has give the job of running the referendum, and getting the result he wants," said Win Min, a Burmese academic at Chiang Mai University.
International election monitors have been banned, and it is unlikely that foreign journalists will be allowed in to report on the referendum. Both these are essential if the referendum is to have any international credibility, the former UN rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Paulo Pinheiro told The Daily Star in an exclusive interview.
Although international observers were not permitted to observe last year's constitutional referendum in Thailand, Burma's leaders need them if they are to convince the world, let alone their own people, the vote was legitimate, according to Professor Pinheiro.
"I think it would be unfair to compare the political system in Thailand with the military government in Myanmar," he said. "After decades without election at least international observers could verify the conditions of the vote. And the UN has a unit that just deals with elections, but the military government has refused their help."
In fact the Burmese military ruler Than Shwe also rebuffed the Thai government's offer to assist in running the referendum during the Thai prime minister's recent visit to the Burmese capital, according to Thai diplomatic sources.
But what is even more undemocratic is the government's insistence that there be no public debate during this referendum campaign -- only arguments for the constitution are allowed. The local media have been forbidden from reporting the "No" campaign. The new constitution cannot be criticised, and anyone who does is liable to be sentenced to more than ten years jail. Those who recommend a "No" vote have been beaten up and at least twenty young members of Aung San Suu Kyi's party have been arrested for wearing T-shirts that said "Vote No."
Undeterred the NLD has launched its opposition to the constitution. "For the people who have the right to vote, we would like to encourage again all voters to go to the polling booths and make an 'X' (No) mark without fear," the NLD urged voters in statement released to the press last week. But they conceded the whole process was a sham.
"An intimidating atmosphere for the people is created by physically assaulting some of the members of (the) NLD," its statement said.
"The whole process is surreal to have a referendum where only those who are in favour of the constitution can campaign," Professor Pinheiro told the Daily Star.
"A referendum without some basic freedoms -- of assembly, political parties and free speech -- is a farce. What the Myanmar government calls a process of democratisation is in fact a process of consolidation of an authoritarian regime," he said
The new constitution took the army more than fourteen years to daft. The actual constitution was only revealed to the public few weeks ago. It is on sale at 1,000 kyat a copy -- the equivalent of a dollar in a country where more than 8 out of ten families live on less than $2 a day. But even then it is almost impossible to find copies, according to western diplomats who have been scouring Rangoon for them.
"You don't need to read the constitution to know its simply conferring power on the military for eternity," said an elderly Burmese academic who wanted to remain anonymous. "The choice is simple a vote in favour of adopting the constitution means we want the military to play the leading role in politics and run the county," he said.
Under the new constitution The president must be a military man, a quarter of the parliamentary seats will be nominated by the army chief, key ministries including defence and interior remain under military control, and the army reserves the right to oust any civilian administration it deems to have jeopardised national security.
The detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi is effectively barred from political life because she was married to a foreigner, the eminent British academic and scholar of Tibet and Buddhism, Michael Aris, who died of prostate cancer in 1999.
This all makes a mockery of the government's stated aim of moving towards a multi-party democracy along its seven-stage road map. Burma's second in command, General Maung Aye recently told recent passing-out parade of new recruits that the constitution would pave the way for democracy.
"Comrades, it is the Tatamadaw [military] that is constantly striving for the emergence of a constitution capable shaping the multi-party democratic system," he told the army recruits last week.
But legal experts and human rights activists insist the Burmese military have got it topsy-turvy. Real democracy needs to be nurtured, including political prisoners released from jail, political parties allow to operate unhindered, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary. This is certainly not the case in Burma.
Professor Pinheiro, who has visited Burma several times since he was first appointed the UN human rights rapporteur, is dismayed. "I've been following political transitions throughout the world, including Asia for more than thirty years, and I am yet to see a successful transition to democracy without a previous phase of liberalism," he said. "There isn't the faintest sign of that yet in the case of Myanmar."
But the regime will be faced with a major dilemma after the referendum. A transition government will have to be formed and political parties given a measure of freedom to function properly, especially if there are to be elections in 2010, as has already been announced. This will almost certainly mean the wholesale sacking of the current cabinet and the involvement of many more civilians in government.
These steps will all be delayed substantially if there is a significant "No" vote in next week's referendum. For although he real count may not be made public, the top leaders will know they do not have the support of the majority of the Burmese people. This could lead to the top general going back to the drawing board even if the referendum is already a done deal.

Larry Jagan, a Burma specialist, writes for The Daily Star from Bangkok.

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