Friday, October 2, 2009

Burma’s 2010 elections to test new US policy

by Brian McCartan

Mizzima News – The United States is seeking to more actively engage with Burma’s military rulers, but made it clear they will not repeal sanctions unless the regime shows that it is taking concrete steps to address American concerns over human rights and democratic reform. A key test of this policy will be elections scheduled for next year.

The United States neither endorsed nor dismissed the electoral process in Burma in its policy announcement. Instead, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged countries to “take a measured approach” until electoral conditions are assessed and it becomes clear whether opposition and ethnic groups will be allowed to participate.

In effect, the US is asking the regime to make concessions to the opposition and ethnic political organizations to allow them to actively engage in the election process rather than the token participation that many observers expect. Most Burma analysts believe that the military has already worked out the percentage of seats to award the opposition and ethnic groups in the final vote tally, expected to be nowhere near enough to influence policy in the ensuing parliament.

Attempts by ethnic leaders to put forward changes to the constitution were ignored by the regime during the constitution drafting National Convention which concluded in 2007. A nationwide referendum held in 2008 approved the constitution, but was widely condemned as rigged. The political opposition and ethnic leaders have called for the constitution to be amended before the vote is held next year, but the government insists that can only be done after elections. Activists argue that any amendment to the constitution after the elections will be impossible due to the military’s heavy role in any new government.

Ethnic ceasefire organizations are currently under heavy pressure to join the electoral process and hand over control of their military wings to the government as part of a new Border Guard Force. Yet, the groups contend that without their troops they will have no bargaining power against a government that regularly uses force to impose its will. Several groups such as the New Mon State Party and the Kachin Independence Organization have allowed members to resign in order to form political parties.

Junta pressure was backed up by action in August when Burmese Army troops attacked Laokai, the headquarters of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), routing the Kokang-based ceasefire group. Although fighting has largely subsided, tensions are high in Shan and Kachin States. The deadline for acquiescence to the junta’s border force demand is only days away and there is a genuine fear that fighting could erupt across the region.

A government offensive, and the inevitable corresponding human rights abuses, would surely run counter to American demands of ending ethnic conflicts and putting a halt to gross human rights violations in ethnic areas. Fighting in the area in the 1970’s and 1980’s resulted in thousands of casualties and the displacement of tens of thousands of villagers. Human rights groups accuse the government of using various forms of forced labor, including portering supplies for government troops and using civilians as human minesweepers, during current counterinsurgency operations in Karen State and southern Shan State.

The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has said that it will not participate in the elections until amendments are made to the constitution that gives the military less of a controlling role. The junta’s insistence that amending the constitution is impossible until after the election has virtually shut down dialogue between the NLD and the regime.

The US, however, has made it clear in its policy announcement that it wants to see engagement not only between itself and the regime, but also between the regime and the political opposition and American representatives and the opposition. Suu Kyi, herself, seized on this theme in a statement made through her lawyer welcoming US intentions to diplomatically engage the generals, but restated that the opposition should also be consulted. A letter written by her to Senior General Than Shwe has asked for permission to meet with ambassadors from foreign countries to get their opinions on sanctions and what can be done to end them.

The NLD’s other main precondition for joining the electoral process is the release of all political prisoners and their participation in the electoral process. The US has similarly identified the freeing of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, as one of its “core concerns.” A prisoner amnesty two weeks ago included 128 political prisoners among the 7,114 released, however key leaders including Suu Kyi, NLD chairman Tin Oo, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy leader U Khun Tun Oo and 88 Generation Student leader Min Ko Naing, still remain in prison or under house arrest. Most observers believe the junta intends on keeping political leaders in detention until after the elections are finished to remove any chance of their serving as rallying points for the opposition.

Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said on Monday, “We are skeptical that the elections will be either free or fair, but we will stress to the Burmese the conditions that we consider necessary for a credible electoral process.” For most observers of the Burmese regime, it is doubtful that they will be willing to make the concessions to the political opposition or ethnic groups needed to make the elections credible in the eyes of Washington.

Unless the generals are serious about reaching out to the US, then the whole exercise risks becoming simply another of the junta’s diversionary tactics aimed at drawing attention away from other issues in the lead-up to the all-important elections. The same tactic has been used with the UN on numerous occasions to deflect criticism until international attention shifts elsewhere. The generals have spent decades consolidating their hold on power and are not likely to be willing to accept any compromise that may weaken their grip.

Burma Newscasts - Burma’s 2010 elections to test new US policy
Friday, 02 October 2009 12:33

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