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Don’t legitimize Burma’s elections

Originally appeared in Wall Street Journal

October 28, 2010

By Ashin Issariya

The government that emerges after Nov. 7 will be no less corrupt and unlawful than the present one.All actions are based on intentions. For instance, the goal of monks is to bring peace and kindness to the people, and so Burmese trust their actions. In contrast, when the military regime says they will hold elections, Burmese are skeptical because they know the intention is only to maintain power at their expense.

When Burma’s monks marched through the streets in 2007, we did so because we saw the pain of the people, and knew we had to respond. People have suffered needlessly for many years because of the military system of control and intimidation.

Our involvement in what would become the Saffron Revolution began Sept. 5 in the town of Pakokku in Magway Division. We began our peaceful demonstration by reciting the prayers of loving kindness, urging the authorities to open their eyes and finally take action to alleviate the sorrows of the people. In response, local authorities and members of the military-supported civilian group, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, violently attacked my brothers.

In response to this horrific insult, we, the monks of the All Burma Monk’s Alliance, demanded an apology from the authorities who purport to be Buddhist. No apology has ever come.

The same organization that participated in that violent crackdown is now masquerading as a political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, in the upcoming elections. The people of Pakokku remember the September 2007 attacks and are very upset to see the perpetrators now presenting themselves as candidates. This story of the corrupt elite taking political power in Pakokku is repeating itself throughout the country right now.

The USDP’s members are running uncontested in many areas because of wide restrictions on any independent political parties. And where there are other parties, the USDP is doing everything it can to manipulate the process and ensure a win. Moreover, people are hesitant to participate because this is not a real election; it is just more of the same deceptions that always happen in my country under the generals.

Like most people of Burma, I am all too familiar with the schemes that the military regime uses to maintain its power. Once when I opened a library in my town so that people could have some access to knowledge, the USDA came and wanted to take books from my library. I would not give them the books because I knew their only interest was to take photos and claim they had built the library. This is the type of social manipulation the USDA is known for. When a road needs to be built in an area, the USDA goes house to house forcing families to give large amounts of money or even to help build the road themselves. Then when the road is finished, the USDA proclaims that it has helped the people by building the road.

In such a system, there are endless barriers for people who seek to build a better society. Monks are not free to even give the sermons they would like. Recently, the regime’s Minister of Livestock Breeding and Fisheries Maung Maung Thein, a former Brigadier General who is now running for office, held a ceremony in Thabya village, Tenasserim Division. During the ceremony, a young monk preached about the sin of killing. As a result, district authorities disrobed the monk. For that monk, this is a deep humiliation and an end to his heartfelt vocation, as well as a great loss to our religious community. It is a sacrilege to be disrobed. What price is that to pay for speaking the truth?

Even though monks cannot vote in these upcoming elections, we cannot remain silent. Despite restrictions, monks are still taking measures to educate people about the problems of the elections, including distributing leaflets and stamping money with boycott slogans. This is done with great risk. In September, monk U Okkantha, who was arrested for anti-election campaigning, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Nevertheless, the work continues and we are finding ways to act. We do this because we know these elections are a lie that will not improve the lives of the people. After the election, Burma’s ruling class will sit in the new parliament buildings in the isolated capital Naypyidaw. There they will pretend to work, far away from the harsh reality of the lives of the people of Burma. And what’s even more, the new constitution gives the military complete independence from any civilian control and they will be able to continue their campaigns of persecution. How is this supposed to improve our country?

I am confused why people in the international community want to wait and see what the elections will bring. The people of Burma already know what will happen. It will be the same faces and the same system that we have been living with for decades. The name “elections” does not change anything for us.

International leaders should think more deeply. Supporting these elections is not supporting gradual progress to democracy; rather it is a message to the suffering people of Burma that international support is given to the military regime and their friends to continue to do what they will. A different message must be sent.

The monks’ religious boycott of alms from Burma’s corrupt elite that began after the violence of 2007 is ongoing. We still demand the release of monks and all political prisoners and call for an end to the people’s suffering. And for these purposes, myself and others will continue to organize and act.

The Venerable Ashin Issariya, also known as King Zero, is a founding member of the All Burma Monks Alliance.

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