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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Rejection of Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal ‘legally flawed’: Defence lawyer

by Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) - Detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer on Friday said the Rangoon division court’s decision to reject the appeal against her sentence is “legally flawed” as the court arrived at its verdict on a constitution that it acknowledges being non-existent.

Kyi Win, a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s legal team, said the divisional court acknowledged that the 1974 constitution is no longer in effect, but said the 1975 law, which is based on the constitution, is still in effect and under which the lower court’s verdict on August 11 is legally binding.

“It is a serious legal fraud. If the constitution is no longer in effect, the law based on that constitution cannot be alive, and thus Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be detained,” Kyi Win told Mizzima on Friday.

According to the law enacted in 1975, Aung San Suu Kyi had been deprived of her fundamental rights, which are stated in the 1974 constitution.

The district court in Rangoon’s Insein prison on August 11 sentenced the Nobel Peace Laureate to three years, on charges of violating her detention regulations, which is prescribed in the 1975 law.

Despite the argument by defence lawyers that the 1974 constitution is no longer in vogue, the district court did not acknowledge it and handed down the verdict, Kyi Win said.

Following the sentence, the defence team appealed to the divisional court, citing mainly that Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be sentenced and must be acquitted as the law, under which she was charged is no longer in effect.

“It is bizarre. I am a high court lawyer and I have also served as a judge but I do not understand how the 1975 law can restrict the fundamental rights prescribed in the 1974 constitution, which is no longer in effect,” Kyi Win said.

He added that the defence will continue appealing to the high court and will focus on the flaws of interpreting the law and the constitution.

After independence from the British, Burma had its first constitution in 1947, but following a military coup led by General Newin in 1962, the constitution was scrapped. Under the Newin regime, a new constitution was drafted and approved in 1974. But in 1975, the Newin regime promulgated a set of laws based on the constitution.

“The division court’s argument is that though the 1974 constitution is dead, Aung San Suu Kyi is charged with the 1975 law,” said Kyi Win.

Burma Newscasts - Rejection of Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal ‘legally flawed’: Defence lawyer
Friday, 02 October 2009 20:10

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US embassy to put up lawyers for detained citizen

by Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) – The US embassy in Rangoon has got in touch with lawyers to defend its detained citizen, Aung Kyaw Zaw, arrested on arrival in the former Burmese capital’s international airport on September 3.

Kyi Win, a high court advocate, on Friday told Mizzima that he was contacted by the US embassy to defend Aung Kyaw Zaw (alias) Nyi Nyi Aung, currently detained in Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison.

“The embassy contacted us to defend him and offered us a fee equivalent to the amount paid to the lawyer they had hired for John William Yettaw. But we said we are willing to provide ‘Pro Bono’ [free of charge] service,” Kyi Win said.

Kyi Win said the embassy had contacted him and his colleague Nyan Win, with whom he teamed up to defend detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to take up Nyi Nyi Aung’s case.

Both Kyi Win and Nyan Win are advocates practicing in the high court.

“I don’t know if Nyi Nyi Aung has been charged yet. I am yet to receive a reply from the embassy,” Kyi Win said.

While it is still not clear whether he has been charged and on what grounds, a report in the state-run media the New Light of Myanmar newspaper last week accused Nyi Nyi Aung of trying to instigate civil unrest in cahoots with underground activists inside Burma.

The report also accused Nyi Nyi Aung of working together with several Burmese organizations in exile including the Forum for Democracy in Burma (FDB), the Student and Youth Congress of Burma (SYCB) and alleged that he had provided financial assistance to activists inside the country.

Nyi Nyi Aung was a student activist and was involved in the 1988 student-led uprising. He along with several other students fled to Thailand in the wake of the military crackdown on protesters. Later he was resettled in United States from Thailand and was naturalized as a US citizen.

Nyi Nyi Aung holds a valid US passport and had a legal social visit Visa to Burma. He flew from Bangkok to Rangoon on September 3 on a TG flight.

Since his arrest, Nyi Nyi Aung was taken to several interrogation centres, where he allegedly endured torture. He was finally taken to the Insein prison. The US embassy spokesman said, Nyi Nyi Aung had complained of ill-treatment during their meeting.

Burma Newscasts - US embassy to put up lawyers for detained citizen
Friday, 02 October 2009 21:28

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ENC wants ethnic groups to contest 2010 elections

by Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) - A group of Burma’s ethnic political organizations in exile – the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) - has urged US Senator James Webb not to condemn the junta’s 2010 election before it takes place but to call for more inclusiveness and for it to be free and fair.

In a letter to Sen. Webb, a strong advocate of engagement with the Burmese regime, two days before he hosted a Congressional hearing on Burma, the ENC urged the Virginian Senator that the US can best help by “Not condemning the 2010 elections before they are held.”

“But instead call for a more inclusive election process that will be free and fair. Electoral assistance can be offered either directly or indirectly through neighbouring countries,” said the letter dated September 28, 2009.

The letter, a copy of which is in Mizzima’s possession, was sent to Senator Webb in appreciation for his interest in the Burma issue and as an explanation on the nature of the complex problems of Burma’s diverse ethnic minorities.

Webb on Wednesday hosted a Congressional hearing on Burma where four experts gave their testimony on what should be the policy of the US towards Burma and the potential role that the US can play in bringing change in the military-ruled Southeast Asian nation.

The letter signed by Saw David Thaw, General Secretary of the ENC, states that ‘in principle’ ethnic nationalities in Burma cannot accept the junta’s 2008 constitution and does not believe that the 2010 elections will lead to democracy.

But the ENC argues that since the ethnics are left with little or no choice, they will have to participate in the elections, because “If there are no opposition parties, the military’s candidates will win by default. The military (and the majority ethnic ‘Burman’) candidates will then become the “elected representatives” of the seven ethnic states.”

Besides, the ENC said, if the ethnic armed ceasefire groups refuse to participate, they will be forced to revert to armed struggle, which will then cause further complications.

Burma under the current administration has seven states, which are home to seven major ethnic groups, and seven divisions, which have no particular attachment to any ethnic groups but are mostly known as habitats of the majority Burmans.

In view of the ENC’s policy of ethnic groups having a voice in Burma’s national politics, participating in governance and development of their homelands, the letter urged Senator Webb not to condemn the 2010 elections until it takes place but to urge the Burmese junta to make it more inclusive and free and fair.

The letter also states that the US can best help the people of Burma by providing assistance in civic education on elections and helping civil organizations that are educating potential political candidates on how to run for office and on democratic governance. And also to support groups that are educating the people about their rights and preparing local organizations on how to monitor the forthcoming elections.

The letter, which for the first time reveals ENC’s policy, states that ENC’s short-term policy is to support eligible ethnic groups in running for office in the 2010 elections.

It also said the ENC’s long-term policy is to develop a robust civil society that will be capable of holding an elected government accountable to the people.

“While the Burmese military will remain in control after the 2010 elections, it is our hope that representatives elected by the people will be able to help hold the military accountable to their own constitution,” said the letter.

“It is also our hope that the new government will be more open to negotiating a political solution with the ethnic groups that are still engaged in armed struggle,” added the letter.

In contrast to the ENC’s policy, the Committee Representing Peoples’ Parliament (CRPP), a group formed with 1990 election winning parties, said unless the regime amends the 2008 constitution, the elections would be meaningless and the CRPP would not contest.

Aye Thar Aung, Secretary of the CRPP, told Mizzima on Friday, “Without amending the 2008 constitution, the ethnics can do nothing even if they participate and are elected. They would just end up as puppets of the junta.”

He said the CRPP as well as Aung San Suu Kyi’s party – the National League for Democracy – have both demanded that the junta release political prisoners, amend the 2008 constitution, and recognize the 1990 election results.

“Unless these demands are met, we the CRPP and the ALD, will not participate in the elections,” Aye Thar Aung, who is also secretary for the Arakan League for Democracy, said.

“And without the junta fulfilling these demands, I would like to urge ethnic groups and others not to participate in the elections,” he added.

The CRPP, formed in September 1998, is an alliance of ethnic political parties that won elections in 1990, which the junta refused to honour. Its members include the NLD, ALD, Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD), Mon National Democratic Front (MNDF) and Zomi National Congress (ZNC).

Burma’s military rulers, as the fifth step of its seven-step roadmap to democracy, said it will hold general elections in 2010, that will elect a semi-civilian government based on the 2008 constitution, which according to the junta was approved by over 90 per cent of voters in May last year.

Critics said the junta’s roadmap is to buy-time and to cement the role of military in Burma’s future politics.

Burma Newscasts - ENC wants ethnic groups to contest 2010 elections
Friday, 02 October 2009 23:31

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