Burma's long, hard road to democracy

Burma might need three or four more elections before it could have a working democracy, but it has to start with the first election, according to leading dissidents.

But many activists remained unconvinced, saying the general election is intended only to whitewash the entrenched military rule.

Harn Yawnghwe, executive director of Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office, said there was nothing much the outsiders could do - Asean and China strictly hold on to the non-interference principle while the US seemed to be obsessed with Afghanistan, Iran and other concerns.

But it did not mean that these countries were not involved.

“Asean will eventually accept the election, no matter what the results will be, hopefully not blatantly,” said Mr Harn, of Shan ethnic, at Chulalongkorn University’s public forum Monday on "Myanmar/Burma – Domestic Developments and International Responses."

Inside Burma, there also seemed to be very limited options, “Certainly, the military will not allow people a lot of chances and they will not bring about democracy, but people inside the country needed to maximize the chance of having its first election in two decades,” said the senior Shan dissident.

The election law has already stipulated that if political parties or politicians boycott this election, the running candidate would automatically win, no matter what.

“The ethnic groups have to participate in this election, and they are doing so. Burma might need a few more elections before we could see some working democracy,” Mr Harn said.

Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese student leader during the 1980s, said the general election would open room for newcomers, unknown faces of various minorities in political scenes, and these candidates, although most of them had military backgrounds, should not be considered in a negative light.

“Inside the limited narrow choice of work, many ethnic people inevitably join the military. But these people are not necessarily evil. They are not stupid but well-educated—so they should be better than the blatant military SPDC,” said Mr Naing Oo, who advocated engagement with the Burmese junta.

He told a strong audience this morning that election would lead to long term prospect for bottom-up democracy, “This is a step that you must take, there’s no other way. We might need another 3-4 elections before we can see some positive light,” said the Chiang Mai-based analyst.
However, Khin Omar, coordinator of Burma Partnership, said the people inside Burma needed a really inclusive, transparent process that respects the rights of all peoples of Burma, not the current restricted environment.

“The key mechanism through which the junta has guaranteed its continued grip on power is the 2008 constitution that cements their authority in the three branches of government,” said Ms Omar.

While new regional and state parliaments would provide some representation for ethnic political voices, the constitution rejected their long-standing demands for federalism. “The election may not be even held in many ethnic areas,” said the Mae Sot-based activist.

Mr Harn argued that there was no ideal situation available, “Sixty years of armed struggle could not overthrow the junta either, so we have to make most use of the opportunity.”

Mr Naing Oo said a semi-military government was better than a blunt military administration and this was a golden opportunity for both the junta and Asean to endorse each other.

“There are in fact a lot of similarities between Burma and other Asean partners.”

But Western diplomats still encouraged Burma’s neighbours, particularly Thailand, Asean, China, and India to “do something”.

Canadian ambassador Ron Hoffmann said international community’s strategies regarding Burma have remained divided, yet Burma issue was still part of the G 8 political security concern.

Canada, where the majority of the 5,000 refugee population is from Burma, is now the president of the Group of heavyweight countries (G8).

Mr Hoffmann conceded that while sanctions would still continue, the international community needed to recognise there were wide views on the ground.

“Canada’s civil society against the regime is quite strong but we are still hesitant to close the space completely,” the Canadian ambassador to Thailand said. The election might not be free and fair but there’s a painful decision to make by the people there — whether to endorse the poll or risk the status quo.

Despite the disunity in the approach to Burma, the ambassador said, there should be common space or issue. All the neighbouring countries including Thailand, Asean, China, and India should communicate with the Burmese government and greater dialogue needed to be forged and a commitment on human rights and free and fair elections was a necessity.

“Asean and China have a non-interference policy but it is time they made a tough decision. Asean, in particular, has been in real dilemma but it is increasingly emerged as a grouping with its own human rights mechanism, therefore they have a legitimate role to play on Burma,” said Mr Hoffmann.

While he urged Burma’s neighbours to “do something”, he felt the G8 and Canada needed to be agile and evaluating —“a policy stance that is changeable to the situation”.

George Kent, the US embassy political counselor, said Washington's stance has been similar to other regional players here who would like to see a dialogue between key stakeholders including opposition and ethnic groups, but since last November's visit by US senior officials to the country, there did not seem to be any positive signals.

“The election laws show unwillingness toward that ends. It’s also disappointing to see the election commission was handpicked by the regime,” said Mr Kent.

Like other Western diplomats, Mr Kent observed that Asean after expressing blunt concerns on Burma’s development at the Asean meetings in Phuket, had become silent.

Its earlier hope— a tripartite core group, a coordinating mechanism on Post-Nargis Humanitarian Assistance, which was regarded as Asean window of opportunity to work with the military regime, has been wrapped up. So the Asean hope was also dashed, said the American diplomat.

Yet, he urged Thailand, Asean and all other players in the region that it was now more critical in expressing and sharing concerns privately and publicly with Burma that there must be some positive change and inclusive process within the country.


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