Burma's New Constitution: A Death Sentence for Ethnic Diversity

By ZIPPORAH SEIN Tuesday, October 13, 2009

As Burma's rainy season draws to a close, ethnic Karen villagers in eastern Burma are bracing themselves for a new military onslaught. It is expected that this new military offensive will be much larger than the one in June, which forced around 6,000 people to flee for their lives.

We already have strong indications that the new offensive will take place in Dooplaya and Mutraw (Papun) districts, as attacks have been going on there throughout the rainy season. Until three years ago, the Burmese government’s army mostly ceased operations during the rainy season, but now civilians get no respite.

So, why this new urgency to escalate attacks? The reason is the same as why the number of political prisoners has doubled in the past two years. It is the same reason why Aung San Suu Kyi was put on trial and her detention extended, and why the dictatorship has broken cease-fire agreements and demanded cease-fire groups place their soldiers under the control of the regime’s army. All opposition and ethnic groups must be crushed in the run up to elections in 2010.

The elections bring in a new Constitution that legalizes dictatorship through a civilian front and a rubber-stamp Parliaments to do its bidding. For Burma's generals this Constitution is a way of securing their rule.

Despite having been lied to so many times before, the international community seems to be falling into their trap. Many countries have been making the mistake of focusing on the process of the elections, whether they can be free and fair, or at least create some political space.

How short their memories are, when only last year we saw the disgusting spectacle of a referendum on the Constitution while millions went without food and shelter following cyclone Nargis. No political space was created by the referendum.

Those trying to organize a No vote were harassed, arrested or beaten. The rigged referendum delivered an unbelievable result of "92 percent" in favor. Yet despite all evidence to the contrary, some still argue the 2010 elections could create a new political space.

While attention has been on the elections, little attention has been paid to the Constitution. Even those few countries which do focus on the Constitution have mostly focused on how it is undemocratic, granting 25 percent of the seats to the military and giving the military wide veto power over any change.

Attention has also rightly been drawn to other provisions in the Constitution, such as the head of state having to come from the military, 400,000 monks being denied the vote and the failure to repeal any of the existing repressive laws.

No one seems to pay much attention to what this Constitution will mean for ethnic people. The 2008 Constitution is a death sentence for ethnic diversity in Burma. Military appointed commanders will control ethnic areas. There is no level of autonomy.

Our cultures and traditions are given no protection. We will be given no rights to practice our customs, or to speak and teach our languages. The process of Burmanization that has already been going on for decades will be accelerated.

The Karen know from personal experience just how bad this process is. Karen people in the Delta and Rangoon are being stripped of their identity and younger generations can't speak, read or write our own language, don't know our history, and even use Burman names to avoid discrimination in employment. Our vision is for a new federal constitution that will guarantee the rights of ethnic people.

The international community seems content to wait and see if elections in 2010 create a little political space. While they focus on the minutiae of politics in Rangoon and Naypyidaw, all around them Burma is descending into an even greater human rights and humanitarian crisis. They must wake up to the urgency of the current situation.

The crisis is unfolding before our eyes. Escalating military attacks on ethnic people are leading to a major humanitarian crisis and creating regional instability. Already we have seen thousands more refugees arrive in Thailand and China. More government soldiers have been sent to Karenni and Shan states, and with the generals breaking cease-fire agreements, the regime will soon also be on the warpath in Kachin and Mon states.

For those of us on the ground it is hard to understand why the United Nations seems content to allow the dictatorship to follow its own agenda in direct defiance of the Security Council and General Assembly.

Time and again the UN has said that there must be tri-partite dialogue between the National League for Democracy (NLD), ethnic representatives and the dictatorship.

The Karen National Union is ready to talk. Other ethnic organizations are ready to talk. The NLD is ready to talk. It is the generals who refuse to talk.

Luckily for them, it seems the United Nations is all talk, but no action.
Zipporah Sein is general secretary of the Karen National Union.

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