by Cheery Zahau
It is a critical time in my country’s history. The military junta, called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has ruled Burma since 1962 through violence and the severe repression of dissidents, ethnic armed-resistance groups, and pro-democracy leaders.
On Sunday, November 7, the SDPC will hold a general election, the first since 1990 when they rejected the result of National League for Democracy's (NLD) landslide victory and placed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – a leader who has the potential to lead the country forward - under house arrest and unable to contest the elections.
At first glance, an election seems to offer new hope for the people of Burma who have been fighting for democracy for so long. Yet, while the authorities claim the elections will be free and fair, the political space is tightly controlled, and opponents of the ruling regime are routinely harassed, detained, tortured, and imprisoned.
The most powerful decision making body, according to the 2008 constitution, will be the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), which consists of 11 members with six from military personnel. This body along with the president has the mandate to declare a state of emergency anytime, which allows for the immediate removal of all basic human rights by the constitution. The SPDC is already known for cutting off internet access and cell phone networks during periods of social unrest.
In democratic countries, after a parliamentary election, the government allocates members for different ministries and committees. With this carefully designed constitution, Burma’s new ministries and committes will be solely influenced by military personnel, which means we cannot expect political, social, or economic policy changes. The power of the military will not be challenged by these two parliamentary houses, which do not possess any real power because of the number of seats reserved for military personnel. Any major policy change will require more than 75 percent concensus of the parliaments. Therefore, the Army will still control the decisions. The fact that the Defense Ministry, Security Ministry, Home Ministry, and Border Affairs Ministry will be controlled by the president further incidates that the parliamentary houses do not possess any real power to decide on these important national policies.
The president also has direct control over the judicial system, and therefore there will be no independent judiciary. The chief justice will be appointed by the president and the president can denounce the position of the chief justice whenever he or she likes. The Army will have their own judiciary system called court-martial, which is a contradiction to transparency and accountability before the law.Articles 444 and 445 of the constitution grant the military blanket immunity for past, current, and future human rights violations committed against civilans, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Systamatic sexual violence against women is rampant, forced labor is widespread, the use of child soldiers exists, and over 2,100 political prisoners remain behind bars. In the fall of 2007, Burmese citizens and Buddhist clergy were shot while peacefully protesting. In addition, monasteries were raided, and monks were beaten and arrested. This corrupt behavior will continue and the protection of human rights at the domestic court level will remain non-existent.
Burma's electoral laws were announced on March 8, 2010, on International Women’s Day, a day when many governments and NGOs around the world promise and pledge to promote women’s political participation. However, Burma’s electoral laws do not promote women’s political participation. There are over 70 women political prisoners in Burma. By failing to promote women’s equal participation in politics through the electoral laws or constitution, the regime fails to comply its obligation of CEDAW, which it ratified in 1997. Electoral laws are seperated into six categories, none of which promote the rights of the candidates or political parties. These elections will not fulfill the mandate of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “the will of the people shall be the basis for the authority of the government.”
Candidates and parties cannot criticize the army, the constitution, or the state. So, it is not a real election because people cannot debate. Freedom of assembly and association are fundamental components of democratic elections. All parties should have the right to campaign freely in the lead up to the elections, to hold meetings and rallies to explain their policies to potential voters, and to persuade voters to elect them to power. Vital to this is the right to freely criticize the current ruling party.
While the registration procees is short, candidate fees are high, and publicity is restricted for most political parties, the military party, the Union Solidary and Development Party (USDP) has access to the whole country - access to public resources such as schools, community halls, health care, and even uses international humanitarian assistance to buy votes from the people. Ethnic parties are extremely suppressed due to their firm position to maintain their defense army.After the elections, Burma will face the same social and economic gap between military elites and the rest of the population who remain in dire poverty. It will be extremely difficult to create a larger middle class within this political environment. A corrupt and arbitrary tax system will remain in place, and the laws that criminalize peaceful dissent and freedom of expression will not be challenged or removed. The repression of dissidents, journalists, members of the political opposition, and anyone deemed a threat to the regime‘s power will continue. Conflicts and military tensions in ethnic areas will result in more refugees and internally displaced persons. Military personnel and their business cronies will continue to gain privileges through legislation passed in favor of elites.
Outside of Burma, the Burmese diaspora will continue to target people at home through community development, capacity building, human rights education and documentation, political empowerment, and raising awareness about the constitution and elections. Inside the country, the people will once again voice their anger and dissatisfaction with the SPDC by boycotting the polls, campaigning against the elections, casting invalid votes, voting for opposition candidates, and other means.
Inside Burma, some take risks to contest the election, knowing they are playing with a manipulative and dangerous regime. It is now time for the international community, particularly governments, to show their commitment to genuine democratic change. The general elections will not bring democracy, peace, or stability to Burma. Instead it will be a step backwards that will only strenghthen and cement military rule. It is shameful for government officials to sit and talk with these generals who are not really elected by the people.
The international community should expose the elections for what they are - a sham – and not recognize the results.
About the author:
Cheery Zahau is a Chin activist working to restore democracy and human rights in her country. She left Burma when she was 17 and settled in India, where she works extensively on women's capacity building within her local Chin communities. She also campaigns to protect women’s rights in Burma. She has spoken at the United Nations and with representatives from governments around the world including India, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Germany and the United States about the systematic sexual violence committed by Burmese Army soldiers against Chin women.