New Internationalist

A military dictatorship in all but name

Burmas much-touted ‘roadmap to democracy’ is anything but, say Jody Williams and Tin Tin Nyo.

One could be forgiven for thinking that democracy is busting out all over Burma. After all, the military junta that runs the country is making a big show of handing over power to parliament, and declaring a victory for General Than Shwe’s much-touted ‘roadmap to democracy’.   

The trouble is, as we all well know, real democracy is hard work and requires a lot more than a ‘roadmap’. It involves bothersome things like free and fair elections, respect for human rights and equality before the law. That’s why most people in Burma, including women and ethnic minorities, are not fooled by this superficial display of democracy in Burma.

Over 2,000 political prisoners languish in Burma’s prisons in abhorrent conditions. Ethnic communities live in fear as they roam the jungle night after night trying to avoid forced labour and execution. Girls and women are left to the mercy of military gangs as they are raped, mutilated and tortured. Children are snatched from their parents and forced to porter for soldiers or used as de-facto mine sweepers. Surely, this is not what democracy entails.    

Burma’s fearless moral leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has repeatedly called for national reconciliation, a process in which the National League for Democracy, ethnic nationalities and the regime could engage in genuine dialogue. There are no indications that such dialogue is on the radar screen. Instead, an inclusive political process remains elusive and human rights abuses continue unabated, especially in ethnic areas.

The elections in November 2010 were neither free nor fair, so it has come as little surprise that the ‘new’ parliament looks like the old military government. Its leadership includes ex-general Thein Sein, the head of the main pro-military party and a dependable ally of general Than Shwe.  Recently the Economic Intelligence Unit put it succinctly: ‘The country remains a military dictatorship in all but name.’

Oddly, though, many countries are willing to overlook the lack of real change. Some democratic countries, like India and Germany, took Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest last November as a sign that it was time to relax the international community’s efforts to bring about change in Burma.

The sad truth is that Aung San Suu Kyi is not free.

Only three months after her release, a commentary in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper threatened that ‘if Daw Suu Kyi and her party keep going the wrong way… they will meet their tragic ends’. And after months of silence, Burmese officials have still not granted the six Nobel Laureates who have continuously supported Aung San Suu Kyi visas to visit their sister Laureate in Rangoon. This is not an oversight. It is a clear signal that the government perceives Aung San Suu Kyi’s work with international activists a threat to the status quo.

Meanwhile, Burma is violating international laws standards on a daily basis, and there is little indication that this is going to change anytime soon. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, certainly recognizes this reality. At the most recent Human Rights Council session in April he reiterated his recommendation to establish a UN Commission of Inquiry in Burma.  

Such an action has strong support from women of Burma. 

Representing thousands of other women, last year 12 courageous women of Burma travelled to New York City to testify in front of an international tribunal, and describe the atrocities they have suffered under the Burmese military. They believed that their testimonies, which according to their own words are ‘normal stories inside Burma’, would provide the basis for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry.   

It is sad to see that a year later, the international community has not matched these women’s courage. This is not the dawn of a new era in Burma; it is just business as usual. With the military steadfast in their power, women and ethnic communities of Burma will continue to suffer the same atrocities at the hands of the new ‘civilian’ regime.

It is time for the international community to demonstrate that we are as committed to the people of Burma as we are to pro-democracy movements in Libya. It is time for concrete actions. The establishment of a Commission of Inquiry can no longer be delayed as it has more potential for a roadmap to democracy than any military blueprint could ever have.

Jody Williams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work on banning landmines, and is the Chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Tin Tin Nyo is the General Secretary of the Women’s League of Burma.

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