Deceit, reprisal stalk referendum in Burma

Source: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ)

By Tita Valderama

MANDALAY, Myanmar — It was first scheduled for May 10 — a referendum on the military-sponsored constitution that was hailed as a democratic step to a possible change of government leaders in 2010. Most groups opposed to the military junta have encouraged vigorous public participation in the electoral exercise.

While they are expecting for the best scenario of having a resounding “no” vote, these pro-democracy and ethnic groups are preparing for the worst scenario that the military regime will come up with a “forced yes” vote.

Last Tuesday, the government announced that it was resetting to May 24 the referendum in at least 40 townships in Yangon that were seriously ravaged by tropical cyclone Nagris over the weekend.

Strangely, the draft constitution seeks, among other things, to change the country’s name from the “Federal Union of Myanmar” to the “Democratic Union of Myanmar.”

Every electoral exercise in the Philippines have always been presaged by popular cynicism, by widespread suspicion that the results would be marred by cheating and fraud. The story finds parallels here. Anti-regime groups here and elsewhere strongly doubt the credibility of the upcoming balloting, with the military employing various measures to deceive, intimidate and bribe the electorate to cast a “yes’” vote.

“If the referendum is held free and fair, the regime will lose,” said Zin Linn, information officer of the National League for Democracy, Myanmar’s biggest political party that won in the 1990 general elections that the junta refused to recognize.

“The majority will give a ‘no’ vote. They are suffering in their daily life. They are always disappointed. There is no education, health care. The government has never taken the responsibility to build schools, to support students with education, and hospitals have no medicine. You will find medical personnel but no medicine,” he explained.


No opposition input


The constitution caps the work of a national convention over the last 14 years, or from 1993 to 2007. The draft was later fine-tuned by a 54-member drafting commission led by supreme court chief U Aung Toe from late last year to February 2008, when the government ironically referred to as State Law and Peace Development. The government forthwith announced the holding of a referendum in May, to be followed by general elections in 2010.

The constitution was drafted without the participation of the National League for Democracy, the primary opposition party founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and the ethnic minorities that comprise roughly 50 percent of the Burmese population of 58 million people.

Instead, generals ignored inputs from the pro-democracy opposition and worked on the final draft that disallowed Suu Kyi from making a political comeback through a provision that bans candidates married to foreign nationals. Suu Kyi was married to a British.

The draft charter provides for a bicameral legislature and allots 25 per cent of seats in both houses of parliament to the military.

Despite a ban in campaigning for a ‘no’ vote that could end the 46-year dominance of the military, by all accounts the regime still resorted to many forms of deception, threats and intimidation to force the people to vote in favor of the constitution.

On April 30, one of the military regime’s staunchest defenders, Namkham township chief Tin Hlaing, warned, “anywhere the draft is defeated, heads will roll,” according to Khuensai Jaiyen, exiled editor in chief of Chiang Mai-based Burmese Shan Herald Agency for News.

(There are at least 100 Burmese journalists on exile, mostly in Chiang Mai, Thailand) since the crackdown 1998 crackdown where at least 3,000 people were killed in anti-military regime demonstrations.)

Another form of deceit the military government employs, according to Khuensai, is that a ‘yes’ vote to the constitution is the answer to all the people’s problems.

“In April, some 200 buffaloes in Mongyawng died of throat diseas, but officials said voting ‘yes’ for the draft is the cure for it,” he recalls. “Likely, the SPDC supreme feels the same way about the Nagris disaster,” he adds, referring to last weekend’s tropical cyclone that is believed to have killed at least 100,000 people and rendered more than one million homeless.


Penalty: Detention


The referendum guidelines forbid campaigning against the draft and violation carries penalty of up to three years of detention.

Teddy Buri, an elected member of Burma’s parliament in 1990 under Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party, described Saturday’s referendum as “a sham.” He said it is “tailored to the needs of the military regime. It will not benefit the country and the people.”

“We are very much against the referendum. It is of no benefit at all to the ethnic groups. There is no autonomy at all,” said Buri, who was supposed to represent Myanmar’s largest ethnic community in the parliament.

Win Min, a Burmese Harvard graduate and currently works as researcher in exile at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, believes the military junta decided to hold the referendum on the 194-page constitution containing 457 articles in order to divert increasing attention for negotiation with the opposition and initiating economic reform.

Saw David Thakapaw, a Burmese pro-democracy leader in exile in Bangkok, notes that the referendum was the fourth step in the military junta’s ‘roadmap” toward democracy, but he avers that the constitution the regime wants the people to approve is “fraudulent” and that it was simply designed to perpetuate the military dictatorship’s hold to power.

Themong (not his real name) is a 34-year-old graduate of Yangon University. He tried to cross the border to Thailand in 1996 and got a job totally irrelevant to his college course. After two years of working under harsh conditions at a fish port, he went back to Yangon and took odd jobs, earning barely enough for himself.

Themong, who says he does not plan to have his own family because he could not financially support a child, said he is not interested at all in casting his vote on the constitution on Saturday. “No use. It will not give me job. No food,” he said in a casual conversation in the country’s former capital city.

Kinsala, a 50-year-old mother to a teenage boy, only gave a cross sign to express her ‘no’ vote. She said most of the people she knows are just keeping quiet, but remain opposed to the regime and want to cast their negative vote.


Reprisal, repression


Asked if she would join street protests if the ‘yes’ vote wins, Kinsala, who speaks fluent English and French, flatly said no. “It’s not only me that they will go after. How about my son and family? I may lose my job,” she explained in another conversation in Bagan, described as one of Southeast Asia’s richest archeological sites more than 680 kilometers away from Yangon.

Farther here in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city next to Yangon with 1.2 million people, a hotel worker said he will cast his “yes” vote because the government says it’s good for the country. He refused to expound.

(Because my travel to Myanmar was not as a journalist, I had very limited engagements with Burmese people on sensitive topics like politics to avoid the possibility of attracting attention of police or military agents and be deported for violating visa rules.

In spite of the cautious effort to avoid getting attention, I and my Malaysian and Thai friends still had a somehow scary experience of being followed by a military-looking man on a motorcycle.

After watching the live performance of the Moustache Brothers, a comedic trio known for their satirical criticisms of the military regime, my Malaysian friend already noticed the motorcycle following us since we left the dusty side street where the comedians’ rundown apartment cum theater is located. When our cab took the curb to the hotel, the man stopped at the corner. Roughly 10 minutes later, while we were sitting at the hotel lobby talking about it, the man suddenly appeared by the door, and approached the front desk. The front desk refused to say what the man told him, and even pretended not seeing any man coming in.)


Overwhelming ‘no’ sentiment


Saw David estimated that “99 percent of the people in Burma don’t support the draft constitution” and would most likely cast their ‘no’ vote.

Burma New International, a network of 10 independent Burmese media organizations, came out on Wednesday with results of a face-to-face opinion survey done in late April and covering more than 2,000 registered voters showing that 83 percent would cast their vote, 10 percent plans not to vote and the rest remain undecided.

The same survey, said to be the most comprehensive and statistically representative poll of eligible voters, also shows that if the referendum were held today, 66.4 percent of those who would participate would cast a ‘no’ vote, leaving a significant minority of 23 percent undecided.

Mu Hlaing Theint, BNI secretary said in a press briefing in Bangkok, said 31.2 percent of the persons surveys were farmers, 16 percent were businessmen or merchants and 11 percent were students.

It was intended to gauge voting preferences and levels of awareness of the constitution among eligible voters. The respondents also covered housewives and pro-regime USDA (Union Solidarity and Development Association) members — from seven states and 6 divisions across Myanmar.


Not aware: 69 percent


The survey also revealed that a significant 69 percent of respondents were not aware of the contents of the proposed Constitution.

Most respondents (75.9 percent) said they will vote out of “conscience” rather than “coercion” (17.4 percent). Farmers and traders are among those who indicated they are “forced into” voting a certain way, or given something in return.

“This survey takes the pulse of ordinary voters from all over Burma, but particularly from ethnic nationality areas where there has been limited surveys to date,” she said.

“Amid the utter devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis, the regime’s commitment to pursuing the vote at any cost, may result in an even bigger ‘No’ result.”

Sein Win, editor in chief of Mizzima News, a BNI member, said “decades of poverty and mismanagement and a lack of faith in the military as an institution is behind the strong ‘No’ vote result… If people are told to go and vote, as they have been, they will go ahead and vote. But public sentiment is against the regime, and its constitution, especially as they drag their feet to organize an urgently needed humanitarian response in cyclone-affected communities.”


Passive resistance


“(The) Burmese people have always found ways to passively resist the military regime, and we expect that a large number of the population intend to vote ‘No’. Whether they will be allowed to cast their vote freely and fairly remains to be seen.”

Saw David expressed pessimism that the outcome of the referendum would “most probably be a fake ‘yes,’ as he stressed the need for the pro-democracy movement and the ethnic and other groups opposed to the military regime in Myanmar to “keep the struggle.”

“We have to use international pressure and mass movements,” he said in a panel discussion Tuesday night at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Thailand.

U Maung Maung, general secretary of the National Council for the Union of Burma, warned that the opposition and other anti-junta groups “are not letting the regime get away with what it wants to do.”

Either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ vote can create a “new situation” for Myanmar that is worth watching, according to Pablo Espiniella, human rights coordinator at the UN Human Rights regional office in Bangkok.

Asked what possible situations could take place, he simply said” There are some movements…the grounds are there….the problem is security. These things are going to happen and we are finding out mechanics to monitor.” — Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism/Southeast Asian Press Alliance

The above article was first published by PCIJ on 11 May 2008.

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