In 1962, the last democratic government in Burma was ousted by a military coup d’état, paving the way for over 40 years of oppression under one of the most brutal regimes in the world. Popular uprisings in 1988 led to elections in 1990, in which the people overwhelmingly rejected military rule and awarded Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and ethnic opposition parties with more than 80% of the seats in parliament. The military never allowed them to take power, and instead imprisoned many democratic and ethnic leaders.
With the junta’s election laws released on 8 March 2010, it is clear that the SPDC has a different strategy in place this time. In an attempt to consolidate power before the elections, it is taking systematic steps to destroy the opposition. The junta’s election laws prohibit prisoners from joining political parties and running in the elections, including almost 2,200 political prisoners, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Khun Htun Oo, and other key leaders. The military regime is thereby excluding the leaders of Burma’s democratic and ethnic opposition from participating in these elections. The National League for Democracy refused to re-register according to such unjust laws, showing that the junta is not conducting elections that will be free, fair or inclusive.
To consolidate control over ethnic areas, the regime is escalating attacks against ethnic groups, resulting in massive human rights violations and displacement. In 2009 alone, military offensives in Eastern Burma forced approximately 43,800 ethnic people over Burma’s borders. The junta has also stepped up hostilities against ceasefire groups, demanding that they be placed under control of the army, as part of its Border Guard Force. Despite increased pressure, ethnic groups remain steadfast in their opposition to the proposal.
Some voices inside and outside Burma have expressed the hope that no matter how flawed the process, the 2010 elections may still provide an opening for political change. Yet, any chance for incremental democratization has been dashed by the flawed 2008 Constitution, singularly drafted and forcibly ratified by the military.
While creating a new ‘civilian’ facade, the constitution contains multiple provisions that ensure continued military rule. By making the non-elected Commander-in-Chief the most powerful person in Burma, placing the military above the law, and giving the military 25% of seats in parliament, the junta has guaranteed its continued dominance over Burma’s political landscape. This 25% is significant because any constitutional changes require 75% support, giving the military effective control over constitutional amendments. The regime is already making preparations to ensure the remaining 75% of seats will be won by proxy politicians, many of whom will simply exchange their military uniforms for civilian clothes. We have seen this most clearly with Prime Minister Thein Sein leaving his military post to lead the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Most significantly, the 2008 Constitution furthers ethnic inequality and provides no solution for Burma’s ongoing conflicts. By requiring military experience for top positions and giving the Commander-in-Chief and President power to appoint key ministers, the regime has guaranteed that ethnic political participation will be token. Instead of recognizing long-standing demands for ethnic equality and federalism, the constitution ensures the military’s continued control over ethnic areas, including massive profits to be made from the rich natural resources found in these areas. The constitution also guarantees blanket immunity for the military’s past crimes against humanity and war crimes against ethnic people, creating a climate of impunity where these atrocities will be allowed to continue.
On the basis of the regime’s elections preparations, including its highly problematic constitution and unjust election laws, it is clear that the elections will only lead to continued instability within Burma and the region.
Burma’s movement for democracy and ethnic rights has continuously pushed for solutions—key benchmarks that the junta must meet to ensure national reconciliation and true democratic progress in Burma. They include:
Without these benchmarks, this year’s elections will not be a step forward.