People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIV

No. 12

March 21, 2010

FIVE-PLUS STICKS FOR ONE CARROT

 

Myanmar Junta Again Bares Fangs

 

Naresh ‘Nadeem’

 

THE junta, which is currently ruling Myanmar, must sure get its share of credit; it’s another thing that its share of credit is excessively small. In 2008, it promised elections for a new parliament, and now has announced its intention to hold elections some time later this year. But the date remains unspecified and till the elections are actually held, there is, as they say, many a slip between the cup and the lip.

 

CHANGING THE

RULES OF GAME

Even otherwise, the laws notified last week give one ground to suspect whether the junta is at all going to relinquish power if the people mandate it to do so. It has already burnt fingers two decades ago, when the National League for Democracy swept the “People's Assembly” (Pyithu Hluttaw) polls while pro-junta National Unity Party failed to deliver the goods. Out of the 1,32,52,606 valid votes polled on May 27, 1990, the NLD bagged 79,43,622 votes or about 60 per cent, while NUP got only 28,05,559 (21 per cent). In terms of seats, the NUP fared far, far worse with a pittance of 10 out of 492 seats, as against the 392 seats the NLD bagged.

It is clear that the junta failed to gauge the depth of the people’s revulsion when in 1989 it announced to hold the first ever polls since it usurped power in 1962. The junta felt compelled to hold elections in 1990 because of the pressure the “8888 Uprising” had created, even if it invited a spate of firings and martial law. This popular agitation got its name from its beginning on 8/8/88.  

The results, no doubt, must have stunned the dictators. Now ruling the country as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), they took no time to reject the people’s mandate and put the top NLD leadership, including its chairperson Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, behind the bars.

As for the junta’s next step, it was clear that, to its dismay, it could not elect a new people. It was therefore more prudent for it to change the rules of the game. Now led by “Senior General” Than Shwe, the SLORC initiated in 1992 a plan to effect a new constitution and created a body for the purpose, packed with handpicked men, without any semblance of a constituent assembly election. This “National Convention” --- “the nonsense of a convention," as Jonathan Manthorpe described it in Vancouver Sun, March 15, 2010 --- began its work on January 9, 1993, and took 15 years to draft a constitution, with no inputs from the people or their elected representatives, several of whom were now behind the bars. In 1997, the SLORC rechristened itself as the State Peace and Development Council.

On February 7, 2008, the SPDC announced a referendum on the draft constitution and elections under it by 2010. This referendum for a "disciplined democracy" took place on May 10, 2008, when the junta claimed 92.4 per cent of the 22 million voters “overwhelmingly approved” it. The supposed voter turnout was 99 per cent.

The world public opinion refused to buy the claim, accusing that frauds across the country marred the referendum. It was said that in several places authorities and polling station officials ticked the ballots themselves and did not let the voters do anything.

As for NLD, it refused to recognise the 2008 referendum which was, according to its legal advisor Nyan Win, “drafted and approved by the junta without the people’s consent” (Mizzima News, March 11, 2010).

 

OUTRAGEOUS

ELECTION RULES

One can judge the new constitution’s nature and purpose from a few simple facts. For one thing, granting sweeping powers to the military, the constitution reserves for serving military officers one quarter of the lower house seats, one third of the upper house seats and key ministerial portfolios. It also gives immunity for military personnel from civilian prosecution.

The new constitution has made similar reservations in the 14 regional parliaments.

Now, under the same “orchestrated constitution,” the junta has come out with a set of five new laws to specify how the promised elections will take place, if at all. The junta declared on March 8 that it was coming up with new laws, but specified them in instalments from March 10 onwards. As The Hindu editorial said March 15, “Only portions of the law have been released and they are outrageous.”

The first of these laws constituted a five member Election Commission. The junta said the body comprises impartial people but widespread apprehensions persist. The commission has wide-ranging powers including the power to cancel the poll in an area or province in case of a natural disaster, disturbance, etc. However, observers feel there is nothing in the statutes to prevent the commission from exercising this power at the national level.

Then came on the same day the Political Parties Registration Law, showing how the junta was itching to bare its fangs. This law says anybody convicted of a crime (1) cannot contest an election, and (2) cannot be a member of a political party, otherwise the concerned party will itself stand the risk of derecognition. The law thus takes away from the parties their democratic prerogative to decide who to accept as a member and who not. 

Thus this particular piece of law requires the NLD to expel Aung San Sui Kyi and several other leaders from its ranks or else refrain from taking part in elections.

The reason is this. The 64 years old Suu Kyi, who has been in house arrest for 14 out of the last 20 years, is currently serving a new 18 months house arrest that will continue up to November 2010, and last month the Supreme Court has dismissed her appeal for freedom. Suu Kyi received this punishment in August 2009 when she briefly sheltered an American youth who had swum to her lakeside residence. Two of her 24-hour assistants received similar sentences.

Evidently, Suu Kyi’s new term would keep her away from the promised elections; it makes no difference that she has appealed against her latest conviction.

Aung Thein, a lawyer who has defended activists in the country, said, "It is very unfair that a party member serving a prison term for his or her political convictions has to be expelled from the party. This clause amounts to interfering in a party’s internal affairs."

The law also bars members of religious orders from joining a party. This indicates the junta still has on its mind the agitation led by Buddhist monks. The agitation began on September 18, 2007, and government swooped down on September 26, killing 31 and injuring hundreds.

 

NOT THE

FIRST MOVE

Describing it as a law “aimed at keeping the popular leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi out of the electoral process,” The Hindu said, “There cannot be a greater fraud on the electoral process, the sole aim of which is to keep the military junta in power.”

This is, however, not the first move for her disqualification. The 2008 constitution had already debarred her from taking part in political life because of her “foreign connection.” The ground was that her academician husband Michael Aris, who died in 1999, was a British and that both her sons are British citizens. 

Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Macquarie University, Australia, opined, "They've used so many devices. It's like using a machine gun to kill a mosquito.”

The law also requires the parties to register themselves anew, within 60 days from March 10. 

Yet another gem in this set of laws is that the junta has declared the 1990 elections void under the 2008 constitution.

To be fair to the junta, it has offered a carrot as well. On March 10 evening, authorities began to reopen NLD offices in Yangon and other places, by removing the red lac seals. The government had locked these offices in 2003 after a group of pro-regime activists attacked a convoy carrying the NLD chairperson. To many observers, this was a planned attack aimed to restrict the party’s activities.

It was not unnatural if Zin Linn, spokesman of Myanmar’s government-in-exile, said the vote won’t be free and fair as long as the constitution remained "undemocratic." He also said free and fair elections demand the release of all political prisoners.

One notes that though the NLD deputy chairman Tin Oo has been released, more than 2,100 political prisoners are still in jails. Out of them, 429 are NLD leaders including 12 who were elected to parliament in 1990.

The government-in-exile said categorically, "The issue is not the election; the issue today is the 2008 constitution. In this constitution, there are many clauses (that) are undemocratic.” It said the country’s military government has enforced in the set-up several changes that guarantee its continued rule, regardless of elections.


UNCERTAINTY

PERSISTS

These latest laws have come under criticism, severe or mild, from the international community. Secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the UN is still studying the laws but "the indications available so far suggest that they do not measure up to our expectations of what is needed for an inclusive political process." He stressed on the release of political prisoners, freedom for all to participate in elections, freedom to campaign, and media access to all.

On March 14, Filipino foreign secretary Alberto Romulo accused the Myanmar's military regime of breaking its promise to democratise and of barring Suu Kyi from the coming elections. He described the new election laws as a farce and urged the southeast Asian countries to push the junta to rescind these laws. Romulo’s comments were in sharp contrast to the ASEAN’s hitherto muted criticism, on the plea that human rights violations in Myanmar are its internal matter. The country joined the ASEAN on June 23, 1997.

In November 2006, the ILO said it would seek "to prosecute members of the ruling Myanmar junta for crimes against humanity" at the International Criminal Court over the continuous forced labour of its citizens for the military. According to ILO, an estimated 8,00,000 people are subject to forced labour in Myanmar.

Yet the world community has so far failed to make the junta mend its ways. The junta is guilty of human rights violations of numerous kinds --- denial of democracy, forced labour, child conscription for army, abuse of ethnic minority women for porter jobs and for the armymen’s sexual gratification, drug peddling, etc.

So far the NLD has not made clear what it proposes to do; its top leaders are yet to meet. Grapevine, however, has it that it may decide to contest the polls even if by dropping Suu Kyi from its rolls. But if it thinks it can do something after its win, it would do well “to remember that the junta annulled the 1990 elections after the party swept the polls” (The Hindu). One is thus still in dark about what road the country would take in the coming days.

March 16, 2010