Thursday, 22 May 2008

Junta’s voting victory and Cyclone Nargis

By Sai Awn Tai
Shan Herald Agency for News

The Burmese community in Australia felt anger towards the Burmese military junta after the release of the referendum voting results last week. On 15 May, the state-controlled media announced that 92.4% voters have turned “Yes” to the nationwide referendum in Burma.

This announcement was made despite the Cyclone Nargis hitting central Burma in Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions, leaving at least 134,000 dead or missing and up to 2.5 million people homeless.

“It is a joke that military won 92.4% vote,” said Dr John Kaye, the Greens NSW MP and the President of the Australian Coalition for Democracy in Burma. For the military regime to announce such a result shows they are both incompetent and ignorant. It is impossible for any democratic process to reach such results.

There is no government who can get more than 70% result in democratic countries. The strongest government will get only 60 to 70% in support of any major changes. In reality it is clear that the overwhelming majority of the people of Burma do not want this undemocratic constitution, said Dr John Kaye.

A senior lecturer from the University of Western Sydney, Michael Woods, said, the result of this referendum was obviously dishonest, and that people in Burma and around the world understood from this sham referendum that the military has no interest in a democracy.

He also said it was surprising how naive the military appears to be. If they had truly wanted to convince the world that there was any credibility in the referendum, they should not have made up such impossible results. No-one could ever believe that a referendum would achieve a 99% turn-out of voters.

Michael Woods said it is even more impossible that 92.4% of the population would support a constitution that entrenches control in the military, who have proved themselves unable to manage Burma on all fronts - health, education, economic etc. And even with a state controlled media, at least some of the people would have been aware of the lack of response by the military to victims of Cyclone Nargis and rejected any voting in support of the military.

The military made threats to the people of Burma that anyone who voted against the referendum would be punished. There were reports of people being arrested prior to the referendum for simply wearing a t-shirt with the word “No” on it. The military has also forcibly collected money from the people for its campaign on nationwide referendum.

Prior to the constitutional referendum voting on 10 May, the Burmese community in Australia held a number of protests, demanding the military government ensure a free and fair referendum, and allow the opposition groups such as the National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic parties which won the General Election in 1990, to participate in the process.

Thousands of political prisoners and exiled groups also should be allowed to take part in the referendum process if it is to be seen as honest, said Dr Myint Cho, the spokesperson of Australia Burma Office.

Pro-democracy campaigners in the lead up to the referendum urged the Burmese voters to say “No”. Critics have noted that there was little chance of voting “No”, as the military refused to allow international observers to ensure it was a legitimate ballot. Burma democracy supporters in Australia also sent letters to the Australian Foreign Minister, Mr. Stephen Smith, urging him to approach the SPDC’s representatives in Australia to offer the Australian Electoral Commission by conducting free and fair voting for the Burmese citizens in Australia.

Mr Smith released a statement noting that the military’s constitution referendum is flawed, and that the intended constitution would only entrench the military's grip on power, and that it was drafted without any genuine involvement of opposition groups, including the National League for Democracy, and Burma's ethnic minorities. He noted:

“Australia has its own sanctions against Burma regime. We will continue with these sanctions, as we will continue to urge upon the Burmese regime that it must begin a genuine political process that allows for the full and complete participation by all political players in Burma”. His criticisms were supported by the US president, George W Bush, who proposed expanding sanctions against the military regime.

But the Burma Campaign Australia wanted Mr. Smith to take even tougher action on the referendum. Dr Myint Cho said: “The Australian Government can do more. The Labor Government led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has very good relations with Burma’s friendly neighbors particularly China, India and ASEAN nations. The Rudd Administration needs to use this leverage effectively in putting pressure on the Burmese regime for an inclusive national reconciliation process”.

Even the constitution which was the subject of the referendum has been labeled as a sham. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had urged the military government to make the constitution-making process inclusive, participatory and transparent to ensure that any draft constitution is broadly representative of the views of all the people of Burma. He urged the military government to undertake substantive and time-bound dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other ethnic parties as part of a national reconciliation process.

However, the military junta ignored the UN chief’s proposal. The military claimed that they have been moving toward a disciplined democracy and have a firm commitment to a democratic society. The military claimed that the Constitution had already been drafted and it should not be amended again. They said that the majority of the people do not demand any amendments. However, the military themselves included some last-minute changes to ensure that they can never be tried for any crimes they committed while in control of Burma.

The military government even claimed that the constitution drafting process did have representatives from all political parties. But the NLD, other opposition groups and international commentators claimed that the delegates at the National Convention were hand picked by the military government, and were not representative. The officially elected parties from the 1990 election, such as National League for Democracy (NLD), Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and other ethnic parties, were excluded from participating in the constitution drafting process.

The leader of NLD party, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained in house arrest for more than 13 of the last 19 years. In the mean time, SNLD leader, Sao Khun Htun Oo has been sentenced for 93 years imprisonment along with other Shan State leaders since November 2005. Their only crimes have been to criticize the military.

This constitution allowed the non-Burmese citizens who hold temporary cards to vote the referendum, so that many of the recent Chinese immigrants benefiting from military control could vote. This is against international & national laws. “Now we heard that the military regime have produced several cards for one person. A person can hold up to 4-5 cards. It means that there is no law in Burma. They just do whatever they want,” U Aung Htoo, secretary of Burma Lawyers’ Council (BLC) based in Thailand, said at the Public Forum on the military regime’s referendum in Sydney.

Many now call for the rejection of the sham result. Dr John Kaye said that Australia should have used its close relationship with ASEAN, particularly with China, to urge pressure on the military regime in Burma to make sure that the pretence of democracy does not to go ahead. Dr Myint Cho said that the people of Burma know that the regime will lie the international community by announcing that its constitution is approved by the people even if all of the people overwhelmingly vote “NO”.

Burma’s major political forces, in particular the NLD, SNLD and ethnic parties will not recognize the referendum result and will continue their campaign against the regime’s so-called “road map to democracy”.

Similarly, western democracies and Australia will not recognize the referendum results and reiterate their call for the beginning of a genuine and inclusive national reconciliation process. However, the regime will surely attempt to use the result to divide international public opinions and increase its effort to gain legitimacy from friendly governments in particular India, China, Thailand and Russia, which have vested interests in Burma.

Cyclone Nargis has exposed the military regime as one not been caring about its own people. The UN chief Ban Ki-Moon and the international community urged the military regime to postpone the 10 May nationwide referendum and focus their efforts on more than 100,000 people dead and 2.5 millions people are facing starvation. However, they ignored these calls, and have neglected actions to help those affected by the worst natural disaster in Burma’s history. A regime which puts its own interests before that of the people it claims to represent is not one that can be trusted.

The writer is a student of journalism in Australia – Editor

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