Yesterday Burma went to the polls for the first time in 20 years. The Burmese authorities will no doubt try and use the return to democracy as an opportunity to re-brand itself and appeal once more to key trading partners such as China and India. But the world should not be fooled.
This is not a landmark event. And that is the message that David Cameron and the Business Secretary Vince Cable should ram home over the next week when they are in China. As the Telegraph reported, Chinese investment - at over £5bn - is important to Burma.
And as such it has a unique role to play in the country’s future direction. The British delegation needs to ensure that means putting human rights before trade. Burma remains a country where torture; unfair trials; extra-judicial killings; forced labour; violations of freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion are all common place. And the elections will change very little for the average person in Burma. On a purely cosmetic level, the new government will have a very similar appearance to the old military junta.
The National League for Democracy, who won the last polls in 1990, only for the ruling military junta to ignore the result, announced earlier in the year that they would be boycotting the elections and have since been disbanded. Meanwhile, all the other pro-democracy parties have been put under severe pressure and have been routinely harassed.
There are more than 2,200 political prisoners in Burma – a vast majority of whom were the leaders of the various opposition groups – and all were banned from taking part in the election or belonging to a political party. Of the 1,157 new seats in the national and regional legislature, 25 per cent were reserved for military officials.
Meanwhile, dozens of other military leaders stood down in order to run as civilians for parties seen as proxies for the military. Of the remaining 30 or so political parties registered to take part, two dominated the election process – the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National Unity Party (NUP) – and both have a significant bias towards the status quo. The USDP was set up by the military junta.
The NUP, while not directly endorsed by the military, is certainly the party outside the USDP that it is most comfortable with. The NUP is the successor to the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), which controlled the country in Ne Win’s pre-1988 socialist one-party state. The USDP and the NUP had more candidates up for election than all the other political parties put together. And, combined with the directly appointed military MPs, they are on course to comfortably dominate the new parliament. From an Amnesty prospective, it all means that the election offers little hope for an improvement in the human rights’ situation.
Indeed recently the situation appears to have got worse. Amnesty’s researchers have been on the Thai-Burma border over the last few months – and their findings paint a very bleak picture. The authorities brought in a wave of measures that made organised opposition particularly difficult. Among those measures was the threat of a 20-year jail sentence to anyone who advocated a boycott of the poll – a notably move given the NLD decided not to put up candidates. One of those caught by the measures was Mon monk Okkantha, who was jailed in late September for 15 years for “anti-election activities”.
Meanwhile in Rangoon, six students were arrested for handing out anti-election leaflets – they have yet to be sentenced. There might be a new government in Burma, but the battle to address human rights violations has to continue. The global community must stand together as one and send an unambiguous message to the Burmese Government urging them to ensure all prisoner of consciences are released immediately, all remaining political prisoners receive speedy and fair trials, and most importantly the fundamental rights of expression, association and assembly are respected. And that is the job that David Cameron and Vince Cable must undertake during their trip to China. The Burmese authorities must not be given the opportunity to use this façade of an election to escape scrutiny.
Posted 9 November, 2010 - 07:42 by အဲလ္ဘတ္သန္႕စင္
REF: Daily Telegraph/UK