Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A "Charter 09" for Burma

by Enzo Reale

(Mizzima) -Last December in China, a potentially revolutionary document began to spread through the web. The work of a group of activists, intellectuals and professionals, Charter 08 - inspired by a Czechoslovak dissident's manifesto during the Communist era (Charter 77) - is a genuine statement of principles aimed at overcoming the current authoritarian system in China and establishing a liberal democracy in the country.

Appealing to the universality of human rights, its authors basically ask for the end of the single-party regime, the celebration of free elections, the assertion of the rule of law, the protection of fundamental freedoms and a constitutionally guaranteed separation of powers. But even more important is the proclaimed purpose to build around these core principles a civic movement that could stimulate citizen participation towards political change.

Obviously the document has been savagely censored by the regime. But, thanks to the chances offered by the web, it succeeded anyway in reaching a wide audience inside and outside the country: while initially attracting just three hundred subscribers, today the number of followers is close to ten thousand, many of whom are subjected to interrogation by the authorities and remain under constant surveillance.

A few weeks ago the Chinese government, which officially doesn't recognize Charter 08's existence, published a "National Action Plan for Human Rights", a list of proposed improvements in the field of civil and social rights to be implemented over the next two years. It's clearly pure propaganda Beijing-style and it would be naïve to think that such a bureaucratic plan could instigate real changes. But it's still significant that it occurred just a few months after the publication of Charter 08, an implicit confirmation of its political importance.

Promoters of and subscribers to the declaration have effectively realized a double achievement: first, they showed that their statement has succeeded in breaking the wall of censorship and silence, becoming a point of reference even for its opponents; and second, and most importantly, they have forced the Communist Party to compete in the field of human rights.

In Rangoon, the National League for Democracy (NLD) recently held a national meeting with the elected representatives from the 1990 elections and a limited number of delegates from Burma’s states and administrative divisions. It was the fourth time that the main opposition party had met in a plenary session, with the last attempt, in 1998, frustrated by preventive arrests made by the military junta.

The NLD clearly shows the wounds of twenty years of persecution: its leaders and many of its activists are imprisoned or in exile, its offices closed, its territorial organization disjointed. Still, a few hours before the meeting, the delegates themselves weren’t aware of the subjects they would debate, except for a vague reference to "matters relevant to the country." Under these circumstances a generational change is needed to continue the struggle for democracy. For its part, the ruling junta could allow this kind of gathering without any substantial worries.

After two days of debate, the NLD decided to defer its participation in the 2010 elections, reiterating its call for the release of political prisoners and the revision of the constitution "approved" one year ago. But, perhaps, it would have been more useful if, following the Charter 08 example in China, NLD representatives had taken advantage of this rare opportunity to conceive a statement incorporating a wider scope of principles intended to cultivate a broader consensus. A text that, instead of repeating partial demands doomed to fall on deaf ears, raised the level of challenge against the regime with a political program based on the ideals and values of classical liberalism and historical declarations of rights. An anti-totalitarian Charter 09, inspired by Eastern Europe's Velvet Revolutions or other similar experiences and, at the same time, a model reply to the farcical constitution by which the generals will pretend to legitimate their grip on power.

What purpose would such a document serve? Of course it would not produce a regime change tomorrow morning, nor stimulate an answer by a government far more repressive and paranoid than the Chinese regime. But certainly it could have some important consequences from other points of view.

First of all it would demonstrate that the NLD and democratic activism in Burma are able to innovate themselves despite the persecutions of the regime and produce an ideal alternative beyond the mere concept of non-violence, an ideologically obsolete platform and now more similar to resignation than civil resistance.

It would also provide a reference point for the birth of a civic movement involving a growing number of people, an embryonic civil society whose absence is today one of the main obstacles towards Burma's liberation and, at the same time, the best guarantee of survival for the military caste.

Finally, a Charter 09 would compel the international community to recognize the new democratic Burmese movement as a living reality, worthy of material and moral support, clearly exposing the hypocrisy of those who are willing to be fooled by Naypyitaw's diplomatic traps.

Unfortunately, however, NLD delegates did not have time to discuss the Chinese Charter 08 in their discussions. It's a pity because the latest humiliation inflicted on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by a ruthless regime shows once more the need for firm beliefs and clear vision in the opposition camp.

Enzo Reale is a freelance journalist. He writes about Southeast Asian issues for Italian online newspapers and magazines.

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