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8 May 2008

Burma’s referendum of the absurd

Despite the terrible cyclone death toll, Burma's military junta is pushing ahead with its spurious c

By David Mathieson

The devastating cyclone which ripped through lower Burma last week hasn’t dented the military government’s resolve to push through its sham constitution. Despite the carnage of Cyclone Nargis and the ruling State Peace and Development Council’s (SPDC) obstruction of international relief operations, the planned referendum will be held on Saturday, although 47 townships in badly affected areas will vote on 24 May.

This stage-managed process of drafting a constitution has dragged on since 1990, when free and fair parliamentary elections in Burma delivered an overwhelming victory to the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). Stunned by this unforeseen intrusion on their monopoly on power, the regime then changed the rules by announcing the result was not for a parliament, but for a constitution-writing National Convention.

This Convention finally convened in 1993, but by then was tightly controlled by the military with handpicked members. Over the next three years, in intermittent sessions, the military imposed its vision for the future of Burma, locking up or exiling dissenters, letting others walk out of the Convention, and ignoring their own nominal allies.

The convention was shelved between 1996 and 2003, until, under international pressure, a “Seven Step Road Map to Democracy” was announced. The Convention reconvened in several short and sharply scripted sessions, concluding in September 2007 just before the military brutally cracked down on protesting monks and civilians. Earlier this year, facing widespread public discontent and international pressure, the SPDC announced a referendum in May on the then still unseen constitution.

How prepared is Burma for the referendum? The SPDC has refused to allow any meaningful public discussion and debate of the draft constitution, which it finally released to the public last month. It has arrested and jailed those who have expressed opposition to its contents, using its Law 5/96 or the Referendum Law 1/2006 which carries a three year prison sentence for disrupting the vote. Most people will have only heard the official lines about the vote from the state propaganda machine, such as “democracy cannot be achieved by anarchism or violence but by constitution”.

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Burmese journalists say there is no way they can report effectively on the whole process, as to do so would attract censure or worse from the authorities. With bans on opposition activities, rallies and meetings, basic freedoms hardly exist. After the crackdown on street protests last year, dissidents are largely in hiding. At best, some stage small protests as part of a tiny “No” campaign throughout the country. Their efforts are stymied because nearly 2,000 of their leaders and colleagues are political prisoners in Burma’s horrible prisons.

The constitution itself is a paragon of manipulation by the ruling military. Over one quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for serving officers, as are key government portfolios, such as defence and border affairs. Sweeping emergency powers are retained for the army, as well as immunity from prosecution for past crimes. In a provision aimed at Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-detained Nobel peace laureate and leader of the NLD, candidates for president with foreign spouses or children (Suu Kyi’s husband was the Oxford don Michael Aris) are barred from office. Monks, the vanguard of 2007’s uprising, have been disenfranchised, as the regime has made enemies of the Buddhist clergy.

Already there are reports of intimidation before Saturday’s poll. Government workers must vote in front of their bosses. Villagers have been told by local military commanders that only a “tick” (Yes) is acceptable in the box, or they will be punished. Soldiers in conflict areas have already voted in favour: their officers have seen to it. The SPDC is banking on the fact that public ignorance and state intimidation will form a winning recipe. Yet few think that if the vote goes against the regime the results will be announced, and like the 1990 elections, the generals have no idea how people will vote. It will be interesting to see if the same spirit of resistance is still alive this time around.

The outgoing United Nations human rights envoy Paulo Pinheiro has rightly called the process “surreal”, but in all its absurdity, the referendum is intended to produce exactly what the SPDC has promised all along — “a leading role for the military” in the future political affairs of the country. While the world should be looking at how to help the communities fighting for survival in Cyclone Nargis’ wake, we must not take our eyes off a process tailor–made to prolong military rule, in all its cruelty, corruption, ineptitude and disdain for some of the longest suffering people in the world.

David Scott Mathieson is Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch

The Human Rights Watch report Vote to Nowhere on the referendum, released on May 1, is available at