Why Burma’s freedom remains distant
by Juliette Daigre
It’s hard not to be caught up in the excitement of today’s release from house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s democratic opposition leader, who has spent 15 of the past 20 years in detention. Thousands of Burmese lined the streets of Rangoon to see her and finally hear her speak once again, holding pictures of “The Lady” and even wearing t-shirts upon which her face is emblazoned – actions which normally would bring swift arrest by the military regime. Suu Kyi’s release is a cause for celebration, certainly, but must also be recognised for what it is: a cynical public relations act by the military, coming swift upon the heels of internationally condemned sham elections.
Since 1962, Burma has operated as a military state. Until this month, the most recent elections were in 1990, when Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy won with a landslide. The military refused to honour the results, and since then has ruthlessly clung onto power, with the people of Burma suffering acute and widespread human rights abuses: summary executions, torture in custody, forced labour, sexual violence and expropriation of land and property, especially in ethnic minority areas. Democracy is denied, including basic freedoms of expression and association.
You need only look to this month’s elections for a strong indication that nothing has changed. Before they even took place, it was clear that ‘free and fair’ elections would be impossible, the only possible outcome the consolidation of military rule. There are no surprises here: the Union Solidarity and Development party (run by “civilians” – civilians who just happen to have been among Burma’s highest ranking military officials until just weeks ago) claims to have won 80% contested seats, with the National Unity Party (also composed of military cronies) coming a close second. This is in addition to the 25% seats already reserved for the military under the heavily anti-democratic terms of Burma’s new constitution (which, incidentally, requires a 75% majority to amend), as well as numerous other measures brazenly concentrating power in the hands of the military, most notably the establishment of a hugely powerful military-controlled National Defence and Security Council, with extensive emergency powers including the ability to restrict and even suspend all human rights in the name of security.
Although Suu Kyi’s party chose to boycott the elections (their only other choice was to expel her from their ranks), several pro-democracy groups did choose to contest them, most notably the break-away National Democratic Force (formed by former NLD members) and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party. But they didn’t stand a chance: from high registration fees restricting the number of candidates they could afford to field (in contrast to the USDP which contested all available seats) to inevitable electoral fraud, ranging from government workers being forced to vote in advance for the USDP to the disenfrachisement of millions of people in ethnic minority areas on the grounds of security.
Don’t be fooled by Suu Kyi’s release: it doesn’t change the fact that the elections were fake and fixed, not free or fair. It doesn’t change the fact that the constitution is a sham, put forward by the regime solely as a means to legitimate military rule. But it does bring some glimmer of hope to the people of her country and to supporters of democracy across the world, hope that she will succeed where others have failed in initiating tripartite dialogue between the regime, the NLD and ethnic minority groups.
But is it right that she should have to do this alone? The international community must show it has learnt from previous UN failures, and they must ramp up the pressure on the regime to engage in genuine dialogue with the democracy movement, prioritising securing the release of Burma’s 2,000+ political prisoners and the negotiation of a ceasefire to end military attacks on ethnic groups.
Above all, the international community cannot be allowed to neglect Burma once the excitement of the elections and of Suu Kyi’s release has died down, as has so often happened before. Once the headlines have stopped, don’t forget the people of Burma.