Burma’s Forthcoming General Election: Debate and Disputes

The general election in Burma (Myanmar), scheduled on November 7, 2010, will be a much sought after affair for the international media, as most of the western countries have expressed resentment at the progress of the polls that were expected to bring change to the life and living of millions of poor Burmese in the Southeast Asian country.

The election commission of the military ruled that the country had de-recognized the main opposition party National League for Democracy. It’s leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest and she cannot participate in the polls. Recently, the military junta announced that Suu Kyi could exercise her franchise in the polls, but the Noble Peace laureate rejected the offer and declared that she would not vote.

The country had experienced an election 20 years back, where the NLD led by the pro-democracy icon Suu Kyi won over 80% seats. But the military junta did not obey the verdict of the people and simply ignored the outcome. Rather the band of Generals in power started atrocities on the elected members of the Parliament. Many of them even left the country and they are still living in exile in various countries including India.

Today, India not only supports many high profile Burmese political leaders, but also many common refugees from the country. Unofficial source reveals that there are nearly 80,000 Burmese living in India. New Delhi has around 10,000 Burmese refugees, where as Mizoram supports more than 70,000 Burmese people, migrated mostly from its neighboring Chin province of Burma.

The India based Burmese people, irrespective of their ethnicities, had already denounced the forthcoming Burma election arguing that the exercise ‘will not bring any freedom to the people of Burma’. The exiled Burmese came out with a strong statement that the proposed election would only legitimize the military rule, which has already earned a notorious name for human rights violation.

“The election will enact the 2008 Constitution, which not only contains many undemocratic measures including giving the military effective veto power over decisions made by the new parliament and government, but also depriving people of their basic human rights by stipulating ‘exception clauses’, and preserving draconian laws that explicitly prohibit freedom of speech, association, and assembly,” said M. Kim, an India based Burmese pro-democracy activist.

The activists also apprehend that the November 7 polls will ‘not be free or fair under the present regime and unsatisfied ambience’, as thousands of democracy activists have been imprisoned, intimidated, tortured and put to death for demanding justice, peace, human rights in the poverty stricken country.

Speaking to this writer also Kim informed that ‘nearly 2,200 political prisoners are serving detention in Burma and there is no hint from the military rulers that they might be allowed to participate in the election’.

Meanwhile, on 141st birthday of Mahatma Gandhi (2 October 2010), Burma Centre Delhi had submitted an appeal letter to Sonia Gandhi, president of All India Congress Committee seeking her support in ‘restoring peace, justice, democracy and human rights in Burma’. The letter, endorsed by 44 Burmese organizations in India strongly argued for the immediate release of Ms Suu Kyi with other political prisoners.

“On this auspicious day, which marks Gandhiji’s birthday and also recognized as International Day of non-Violence, we together with other Burmese organizations in India would like to seek your kind attention on the struggle for restoration of peace, human rights and democracy in Burma by non-violence means,” said in the BCD letter.

Mentionable that a living symbol of Gandhiji’s Satyagraha and a recipient of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Award for International Understanding (by India), Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 15 of the past 20 years.

Suu Kyi’s speeches on various occasions clearly reflected her deep respect to Gandhiji’s non-violence method of struggle saying, “If we consider a country like India which was very much influenced by Gandhiji’s non-violence philosophy you can see how clear the military has kept away from politics. India has had many political upheavals and it has faced many problems and it probably will have many problems to face in the future. But I think the seed of non-violence that was planted before Independence has helped them a great deal in resolving the problems in a democratic way as is possible under the circumstances.”

The Burmese groups including All Burma Democratic Lusei Women Organization, All Burma Monks’ Representative Committee, Chin Human Rights Organization, Women League of Burma – India, Shwe Gas Campaign – India, All Kachin Students & Youth Union, Arakan League for Democracy – Exile, Burmese Christian Association, Burmese Women Union, National League for Democracy Liberated Area, Zomi Women Union demand that ‘all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, Khun Htun Oo and Min Ko Naing must be released before the election’.

The Burmese activists, though they were ‘deeply upset with the Government of India for accepting Burmese military ruler Than Shwe as a state guest last July’, they still maintain hope that the largest democracy in the globe would ‘play a crucial role in the process of national reconciliation and restoration of democracy in Burma’. They even urged New Delhi that it should not ‘endorse Burma’s military constitution and elections’, as it would only lead to the entrenchment of military rule in the country.

Even the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed grave concern over the progress of the Burma election. Initially he wanted the November election to pave the way for a credible, civilian and democratic government in Burma. But refusal to free the opposition leader Suu Kyi ahead of polls by the military rulers emerged as a major irritant. According to the UN chief, the military government should release all opposition leaders if it wants the November election to achieve international credibility.

Earlier, Amnesty International also demanded the release of all political prisoners in Burma before the polls. The rights group also called on the world leaders and more precisely ASEAN government heads to pressurize the Burmese government to free the political prisoners and ensure human rights protection throughout the elections period and beyond.

Of course, Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed hope that Burma will march forward for a democratic setup after the polls and provide space for a real national reconciliation. He however urged the military junta for taking initiatives for a free and fair election.

Burma is a member of ASEAN since 1997, but the forum continues to receive brickbats for its support to the military regime. Some member-countries of the forum like Singapore, Malaysia and Philippines maintained their pressure on Burma for political reforms.

In a media workshop on the Burma election as well as the situation of Burmese refugees living in India, over 20 journalists and civil society activists urged New Delhi to take a critical stance on the fairness and inclusiveness of the forthcoming election in Burma and their results.

Organized by Burma Center Prague and Burma Centre Delhi on the 27th of September in New Delhi, the workshop also resolved that ‘though India allows refugees to stay in the country as they await UNHCR refugee status, it could do much more in providing security to this vulnerable group’. The participants reminded the government that the influx of refugees in India is the result of bad governance in Burma.

Inaugurating the day-long event at Press Club of India, Miloslav Stasek, Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the Republic of India, disclosed that the Czech Foreign Affairs Ministry would continue supporting the endeavour for a successful transition to democracy in Burma.

“As part of this project, three Czech journalists came to New Delhi to share their experience in covering elections and at the same time learn more about the work of Burmese independent media and see first-hand the situation of Burmese refugees living in New Delhi,” the Ambassador added.

The workshop and follow-up press meet featured several experts on the Burmese issue including Dr. Tint Swe (Member of Parliament of the Burmese government in exile), Soe Myint (Editor-in-Chief of Mizzima News), K. Yhome (Observer Research Foundation), Ro Mawi (Chin Refugee Committee) and Sangte (Editor of Khonumthung News) with Sumit Chakravarty (Editor of Mainstream), Jyoti Malhotra (Journalist), Vijay Jolly (Jt. Convener, All India BJP Overseas Cell) with others.

This writer had an opportunity to address the gathering and extended heartiest support to the recommendations for the central government and the Indian media as a whole. In a recommendation to New Delhi, the meeting urged the Union Government of India ‘to grant the benefits of democracy, humanity and prosperity also to the peoples of India’s neighbours’, ‘to continue to provide refuge to Burmese in India’ and ‘to carefully monitor the upcoming elections in Burma by sending election observers, and insist on their fairness and inclusiveness in collaboration with the UN and the international community’.

The appeal to the mainstream Indian media included ‘to perceive the presence of migrants and refugees amid Indian society as interconnected with the question of governance in their countries of origin’, ‘to objectively report about the situation in Burma on the basis of all available sources while critically reviewing information provided by the Burmese military junta and its civilian successors and proxies’ and ‘to advocate the rights of their colleagues inside Burma and to highlight the cases of Burmese journalists that fell victim to censorship or persecution solely for having practiced their profession’.