Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Time for NLD to Step Up to the Plate

The Irrawaddy News

Burma's military government last week announced it would release more than 6,300 prisoners, of whom just 23 were classified as political prisoners—including nine Buddhist monks. State-run television in Burma reported that the prisoners were being released for the "social consideration of their families" and to take part in the 2010 elections.

The statement coincided with a five-day visit to Burma by the United Nations’ human rights envoy, Tomás Ojea Quintana, and occurred at a time when the UN Security Council was meeting to hear a firsthand account from that other special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, on his recent visit and meeting with detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the military junta. The announcement was also timely in that it came just one week ahead of an Asean summit in Thailand.

Whatever cosmetic appearance the junta was trying to solicit, most observers agreed that the release of prisoners represented the regime’s rather futile attempt to prevent—or at least reduce—the international criticism on their poor human rights record which raises its ugly head any time regional or global bodies meet to discuss Burmese issues.

Meanwhile, global diplomacy has failed yet again in Burma by its inability to produce any movement on the key Burmese issues: opening dialogue between Suu Kyi and junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe; releasing her and some 2,200 other political prisoners; and ensuring that the elections scheduled for next year will include all opposition parties and minority groups.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a trip through Asia, lamented last week that neither US sanctions nor engagement by regional nations have convinced the junta. "It is an unfortunate fact that Burma seems impervious to influences from anyone," Clinton said. "The path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta, but ... reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them either."

The Burmese generals in Naypyidaw know only too well that the overseas criticisms are no more than the toothless growls of a paper tiger. Their unilateral decision to hold elections next year will be little more than a pantomime to rubber stamp the junta’s new constitution guaranteeing the military a quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament.

However, sitting on the sidelines, some so-called "experts" have naively come to believe that the election in 2010 could represent a major turning point in Burmese politics, opening a space from which the pro-democracy groups will take initiatives for gradual economic and political reform.

In fact, Than Shwe has still not approved the election law. Rumors are circulating in Rangoon that no consensus has been reached in Naypyidaw on which officers will be given parliamentary seats and which will continue in military service.

If we compare the situation to Zimbabwe, we see that—like it or not—the grip of the African nation’s strongman Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party has not weakened because of any international or regional pressure, but due to the effects of drought, HIV/AIDS and economic meltdown.

After months of deadlock, Mugabe has finally been forced to confront the division of ministries in a planned national unity government with the opposition. In the wake of Zimbabwe's economic collapse and spiraling humanitarian crisis, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister with Mugabe remaining president, despite Western leaders calling on Mugabe to step down.

Likewise in Burma, after 20 years of struggle for national reconciliation and talk of rebuilding the failed nation, political leaders and policymakers in Burma must come up with more effective and pragmatic ways to deal with Burmese armed forces, or Tatmadaw.

To persuade the military to engage, the Burmese opposition should focus not only on its demand to free political prisoners, but to exploit the stagnation of the domestic economy and the humanitarian crisis. The NLD, in particular, has to date been too slow to react and has tiptoed around the issues. It needs to let the people know that it is capable of tackling the economic challenges that Burma will face in a post-dictatorial world.

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