Political storm brewing

Source: Bangkok Post

The Burmese government’s woefully inadequate response to Cyclone Nargis, coupled with its opportunistic attempt to sneak by a referendum on the new constitution while the world concentrates on the catastrophe, may be laying the groundwork for upheaval, writes ACHARA ASHAYAGACHAT

The reclusive junta in Burma has adamantly shunned the international community’s desperate efforts to provide a viable logistics centre for disaster relief distribution for the hundreds of thousands of threatened survivors of Cyclone Nargis, while remaining focussed on the long-planned goal to consolidate its grip on power through a constitution, the third charter since the country’s independence from British rule 60 years ago.

The tatmadaw (military) are gearing towards decorating themselves as members of parliament within the next two years. According to the all but ratified constitution, the generals would take 25% of some 500 seats in the 2010 parliament.

On May 10, only a week after Nargis hit the rice-producing areas, Burmese people throughout the country, except in some 47 townships in the Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon areas which felt the brunt of the May 2 cyclone, cast their votes in support of the junta-sponsored draft constitution.

The military-ruled government announced at the end of last week an incredibly high voter turnout of 99%, with a 92.4% yes vote. The drafting of the charter began in January 1993 and was completed last August, without meaningful participation from opposition and ethnic groups.

A similar “joyous” result is expected to be announced by the Burmese government after the referendum for the remaining areas is held on May 24.

Meanwhile, however, a coalition of opposition and ethnic groups based outside Burma – including the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC), Women’s League of Burma (WLB), Forum for Democracy in Burma (FDB), Students and Youths Congress of Burma (SYCB) and Nationalities Youth Forum (NYF) – has denounced the poll, saying there were injustices and cheating detected on referendum day and rampant vote manipulation tactics used before the May 10 vote.

Rejection of referendum: A parallel task

Anti-junta critics have urged that alongside the daunting task of relief and rebuilding in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, it is also essential to expose the “lies” about the referendum allegedly spread by the Burmese government to the Burmese people and to the world.

“Psychologically, people wanted to concentrate their energy to help the cyclone victims, instead of going to the polling booths,” said Aung Din, from the US Campaign for Burma.

“In some areas, only 50-60% of the voters turned out, and in some areas, there were only 25% of the eligible voters. Most of the polling booths were at schools and dharma yones (public gathering place at wards and village tracks for religious events). The military junta used all of its resources, including security forces, police, the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA), the paramilitary organisation Swan Arr Shin, the Fire Brigade, the Red Cross, the Women’s Affairs Organisation, and local authorities, in addition to members of commissions and sub-commissions, to maximise the ‘yes’ votes and minimise the ‘no’ votes.

“As instructed by the top authorities, these junta forces conducted all sorts of fraudulent acts to make sure that they won. They collected so many advance votes, and all of them were ‘yes’,” said Aung Din.

He added that the junta also put up posters with slogans to support the constitution at polling booths and openly asked for “yes” votes. In many areas, polling booths were closed at 1.00 p.m. or 2.00 p.m. The inside-country opposition groups – led by the National League for Democracy under the leadership of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as members of the 88 Generation Students (which comprises mostly senior but mentally-strong Burmese intellectuals), All Burma Monks’ Alliance, All Burma Federation of Student Unions, Generation Wave and many other activists – tried to encourage the people to cast a “no” vote and tried to monitor the pooling booths. But their attempts were mostly blocked by checkpoints set up outside of Rangoon.

Aung Maw Zaw, who is with the FDB, concluded that the international community should boycott the “unfair and unfree polling” and pressure the regime to deal with the life-and-death issue of aid dissemination.

“It is unethical and inhumane that the government insisted on holding this referendum amid the catastrophe that has befallen its own people,” he said.

Cyclone’s impact on political struggle

Win Min, a lecturer at the All Ethnic International Open University (attached to Chiang Mai University), noted that the junta has shown clearly that nothing, including international pressure and the cyclone, can deter them. From the perspective of the junta, Nargis might at first have been considered a blessing in disguise, since the international spotlight which dimmed slightly due to China’s crackdown on Tibetan monks prior to the Olympics was again shining brightly on Burma.

Yet the way the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has managed its aftermath has clearly brought more international condemnation, and also affected the internal political mood, even of civilian and uniformed officers.

“Everyone from Aung San Suu Kyi to the government officers and monks are sad – everyone except perhaps Senior General Than Shwe,” said the Chiang Mai-based commentator.

Aung Naing Oo, another analyst in Chiang Mai, said the cyclone and its aftermath would cast a long-term impact on the country’s economic, social and psychological situation.

He noted that overseas dissidents have been trying to channel their help into Burma, but the SPDC has turned a blind eye to the people’s fate and gone ahead with their plan to cement power.

He forecast that the anger, frustration, and trauma visited on the most-densely populated areas by the tragedy would turn into an anti-junta force in the near future.

“Yes, in the immediate term, the last thing the people want to do is go up against the strong army, as they need to struggle for survival and cope with their daily rehabilitation. But in the medium term, the more the junta drags on, shunning international help on the ground and distorting aid relief, the fiercer the hatred against the junta will grow,” said Aung Naing Oo.

Lian Shakong, ENC secretary-general, remarked that 40% of the affected people in the Irrawaddy delta are Karen. The more stubborn the junta remains in refusing aid, the more Karen people will feel that they have no choice but to resort to an armed struggle in the years to come.

Teddy Buri, a Karenni MP in exile, also banked on the ripe timing to cook up forces against the junta.

“We cannot tell when it will happen, but this time if things break out, the junta will not easily control the results. Even the Saffron Revolution last September was beyond anyone’s anticipation, including the opposition groups outside the country. On one hand, the cyclone is a catalyst for political change,” he said.

Khuensai Jaiyen, a Shan activist in Chiang Mai, said the monks’ movement and the cyclone aftermath have bridged some part of the gap between the ethnic groups and the Burmese opposition groups.

“Hostility which used to exist has somehow been reconciled, as the ethnic groups feel that the tatmadaw are against any race and any religion.

“The generals fear a federalism that would give the ethnic groups something of a free hand. This half-a-century phobia of them (ethnic peoples) should be stopped,” he added.

Aung Naing Oo remarked that the generals also fear that external assistance for their people in the post-cyclone era would bring more trust among the Burmese people for foreign elements, and they would lose their grip of control.

Charm Tong, a member of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), said that in the post-referendum period the ethnic minorities are still continuing to work for a tripartite dialogue, which must be the first step in a political process for Burma’s future.

“Despite the use of force and intimidation, the opposition and ethnic groups have been able to embark on political education – the nationwide campaign to oppose the referendum was at least an opportunity for people to be organised against the regime,” she said.

Charm Tong said the next campaign for opposition and ethnic groups is an invoking of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) process, an international concept which basically states that when a state fails to look after the needs of its people in a humanitarian crisis the international community has a responsibility to step in. Supporters of R2P view it as a method of establishing a basis for humanitarian intervention, as the regime is blocking and delaying aid to the survivors of Cyclone Nargis not only from the international community but also from local groups. For example, monks trying to organise help among communities inside Burma, especially in the delta and around Rangoon, have reportedly been harassed by para-military groups. This is just adding to the unbearably long list of crimes against humanity already committed by the Burmese military regime, including the rape of ethnic minority women and forced labour, including of minors. The lives of the survivors are hanging in the balance. The world can’t just wait until the SPDC decides to allow aid workers to deliver supplies,” the Chiang Mai-based activist remarked, adding that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has a responsibility to all the peoples in the region.

“It is time to prove that there is indeed ‘One Asean at the Heart of Dynamic Asia’ in addressing the biggest humanitarian disaster to hit the region since the Aceh tsunami. Failure to do so will undermine the credibility Asean worked so hard to build at its 40th anniversary. This applies especially to Thailand, which is hosting the Asean summit in November this year.

“Asean leaders must also move to persuade China, India and Russia to exert their influence on the military junta to ensure that international aid reaches people in cyclone-hit areas immediately.

“Asean members of the UN Security Council (Vietnam, Indonesia) should support the UN initiatives such as the R2P, and Thailand must do more than bring aid to the cyclone victims,” said Charm Tong.

The world is waiting to see whether calls like this can penetrate the indifference of Senior General Than Shwe to the anguish of the Burmese people, but one thing is sure:

Time is running out, not only for the victims of disaster, but also for the military regime.

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Achara Ashayagachat is a 2008 SEAPA Fellow. The above article was first published by “Bangkok Post” on 18 May 2008.