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Repression Continues While Observers Naïvely Seek to “Wait and See”

By Burma Partnership  •  December 20, 2010

More than six weeks following the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)’s elections to install a superficially civilian government dominated by the military and its allies, the reality on the ground in Burma has not changed for the better. The military regime continues to wage war against armed ethnic groups, the media, and the democratic forces working for progress. This repressive environment will undoubtedly remain in place as the same regime pursues identical oppressive policies from expensive new parliament buildings. Critics of the elections are asked again and again to “wait and see” before condemning the new parliament, but it begs the question: are the “pragmatic” supporters of the elections simply naïve?

The always sluggish and secretive SPDC has been in no hurry to convene parliament or even indicate when its first session will take place. For the SPDC, even the formalized costume change from a military dictatorship to a military-led parliament seems still a closely guarded state secret, as many uncertainties around the exact composition and timeline of the future parliament remain. Genuine democratic reform would require informing and including the citizens in the political process. But the SPDC has never been interested in genuine, or even modest democratic reform.

The elections have not facilitated peaceful solutions to issues of ethnic inequality or the decades of armed conflict, but have brought more abuse, instability, and violence to ethnic communities. Authorities have harassed people in Arakan, Kachin, and Shan States for not supporting the military backed Union State and Development Party (USDP). The SPDC’s attempts to convert ethnic ceasefire armed groups into a unified Border Guard Force (BGF) under the command of the national Burma Army has led to fighting, death, and increased tension. Armed conflict in Eastern Burma between the Burma Army and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) 5th brigade has continued since 8 November, with nine dead last week. The Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council (KPC) demanded SPDC officers be held accountable for the recent deaths of six KPC soldiers, threatening their ceasefire agreement.

Burma’s political prisoners continue to suffer unjust and inhumane incarceration. 88 Generation leader Min Ko Naing’s relatives and supporters recently expressed concern about the toll prison conditions have on his health. Only recently on 8 December, another political activist passed away in prison from malnutrition and severe health problems. U Naymeinda, a monk and political activist became the 145th political prisoner to die in prison since 1988, prompting UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana to issue a strong statement calling on the SPDC to release the more than 2,000 political prisoners.

Democratic and ethnic forces have not stopped pursuing genuine democracy and inclusive solutions to the political stalemate in the face of unrelenting SPDC opposition. Democratic and ethnic leaders, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, underscored the importance of national reconciliation and including the military in a second Panglong Conference during recent discussions with US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific affairs Joseph Yun.

Freedom of speech and information – necessary elements of genuine democracy – have no place in the military-led Burma. This week, the SPDC censorship board forced private journals to print articles praising the regime’s roadmap and criticizing the second Panglong Conference. The same board has blocked publication of interviews with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Restrictions on freedom of speech further apply to the incoming members of parliament; according to a recent law, members of parliament will be granted freedom of speech providing they do not “threaten national security, the unity of the country or violate the Constitution,” thereby fully limiting those MPs who seek political reform or a review of the Constitution. MPs who oppose the military’s policies will undoubtedly be rendered ineffectual, with little room to voice any dissent.

As evidenced by the military’s past and current efforts to stifle dissent, suppress ethnic nationalities and restrict freedom of speech, the military is entirely unwilling to allow for an opening up of political space. The military elections have failed to create space for genuine progress in the political landscape. Instead, these elections simply allowed the regime to further entrench their military rule. Democracy and ethnic forces, as well as the international community, can no longer sit by and merely “wait and see.”

The people of Burma have lived under the regime’s heavy-handed policies for decades, and these policies have not changed. Rather than “wait and see” or “hope” for the change that does not fit the facts, all domestic and international parties should continue to work towards real change by supporting the efforts of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, democratic leaders, ethnic communities and grassroots democracy and human rights activists as they develop inclusive and genuine approaches to social and political progress.

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