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Burma’s referendum among ruins

I’ve been reading today’s edition of  propaganda rag The New Light of Myanmar. Normally all the railing against ‘foreign stooges’ and exhortations to ‘national duty’ (ie following the diktats of the ruling generals) is good for a cynical chuckle. But, as the song goes, that joke isn’t funny anymore.

The paper is full of images of life returning to ‘normal’ in Rangoon and pictures of planes stocked with relief supplies being unloaded by soldiers. The generals are everywhere – Prime Minister Thein Sein apparently ‘comforts’ cyclone hit people. The photograph shows him standing ramrod straight with a reception committee fanning out around him. Missing are any images of the monks who mobilized first to clear roads and help people with whatever means at their disposal. The junta sees them as troublemakers, so instead it keeps up its self-aggrandizement while impounding planeloads of food sent by the World Food Programme. In the Netherlands, where I live, there is news of a Dutch aid group attempting to smuggle in food aid via the Thai-Burma border using Burmese ground staff. By now everyone one knows what a murderous mess the official relief effort (or lack thereof) is turning into, with each passing day pushing the death toll of the cyclone-hit higher and higher.

Burma’s generals clearly have other fish to fry. Todays’ paper opens with the announcement (in large type of course): ‘To approve the State Constitution is a national duty of the entire people today. Let us all cast “Yes” vote in the national interest.’ The reference is to the referendum on a new Constitution which the generals insist must go ahead tomorrow throughout the country (except for the worst-hit areas where voting has been postponed by  two weeks). Imagine the huge state machinery and resources that such an operation will take up and contrast it with the pitiful official aid effort.

This referendum is the most contrived effort of this regime for a while yet. The junta started the process of drafting a new constitution for the country way back in 1993. The candidates chosen for the job didn’t include the opposition National League for Democracy or people who could be considered representative of civil society. Instead the handpicked candidates nodded through the lumbering process dictated by the junta until suddenly this year it was announced that the draft constitution was complete and the people would be allowed to vote on it.

Until a month ago, the text of the constitution wasn’t available for people to read for themselves though key aspects of its contents had been leaked out. Instead there was continuous propaganda for a ‘yes’ vote. When the text did appear it was available only as a few copies in bookshops, hardly the widespread dissemination needed for people to make an informed choice. Laws appeared which made criticizing the document or campaigning for a ‘no’ vote offences with jail terms attached. Burma’s 400,000 monks were excluded from those who could vote. People working in government jobs were threatened with loss of employment if they voted ‘no’. Reports began trickling in that the regime’s thugs were beginning campaigns of intimidation in villages to force a ‘yes’ vote. Yup, this is the process that’s going to the lead the Burmese people to democracy according to the junta.

The constitution itself is widely interpreted as sanctioning the rule in perpetuity of the military. It guarantees a 25 per cent presence in any future parliament for the military and that 25 per cent is also going to be the top executive layer. Anyone with foreign family connections may not be in government (thus neatly eliminating Aung San Suu Kyi from this vision of democracy). Thus all the constitution will aim to do is confer a patina of legitimacy to this most illegitimate of governments.

The New Light of Myanmar also carries the third lengthy installment of an essay entitled ‘The most appropriate constitution’ in which the author is at pains to put a positive gloss on continued military involvement in  politics. Here are a couple of extracts to give you a flavour:

‘It is common knowledge that the Tatmadaw [armed forces] played a leadership role in the national politics of the independence struggles and in safeguarding the independence. And it is still playing the leadership role, standing by the nation and steadfastly loyal to the national politics...
‘In truth, there is no need to ask why the Tatmadaw wants to engage in the national politics. Whenever politicians committed misconduct, they were disunited, and vied each other for power, they turned to armed revolt, and the Tatmadaw had to sacrifice many lives of its members… The people had to withstand various forms of havoc triggered by the activities of the politicans. So I don’t think it is prudent to let opportunist politicians to monopolize political affairs at will. The Tatmadaw does not want to let any situations to happen that make the people get into troubles, nor can it sacrifice the lives of its members due to the plots of the politicians. Tatmadaw members have to sacrifice their lives in times of emergency. So, they should have the rights to give advice and make suggestions of politicians’ acts, shouldn’t they? Therefore, it has become clear that the Tatmadaw should participate in the national political leadership role of the future State.’

Well, that’s that settled then. The writer goes on to voice a universal truth: ‘Actually, politicans by nature are harmful to the nation.’ Without mentioning that the alternative on offer here is even worse. The piece ends thus:

‘Very clear, we will have to unanimously cast “Yes” vote for the new constitution. Only then, will it be possible for us to get the most discipline-flourishing and developed democratic nation. We have to be convinced that casting “Yes” vote for approval of the constitution is shouldering a national duty.
‘In conclusion, I would like to urge all to lead an easy life in the new democratic nation after casting “Yes” vote for the constitution in the referendum.’

The bitter irony of this reference to the ‘easy life’ in the current circumstances was obviously lost on the state censors.

In the end, many feel, it will matter little how those who turn up vote. There are no international observers and the stage looks set for rigging. The generals have also probably learnt lessons from the elections of 1990 in which they were routed, when they hubristically thought they would win. This referendum, planned to take place under near-universal condemnation, needs to deliver a result more conducive to them.

That this charade must be played out during a crisis on a scale of the Asian tsunami... well, there are just no words for it.

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