Monday, 3 May 2010

Will democracy die on May 6th?

On Thursday - while we're voting in our next government - one of the world's most resiliant and inspiring democracy movements will be struck a crippling blow. Because of its refusual to accept the military junta's corrupt election laws, Burma's National League for Democracy (NLD) will be forcibily shut down and formally cease to exist.

It's not as if the NLD has had an easy ride up until now. Formed in the aftermath of the 1988 uprising when students, monks and tens of thousands of others flocked to the streets in defiance of military rule, the NLD was subject to opression from day one. Members were imprisoned, beaten, tortured and killed. Offices and homes were raided. The party's famous fighting peacock flag could not be flown without facing the wrath of state violence.

But it lived on. And in 1990 - when under international pressure the military dictatorship held elections - it swept to a tremendous victory, winning 80% of parliamentary seats compared to the military's 10%. Yet the parliament never sat. The military junta ignored the result, threw inspirational leader Aung San Suu Kyi into jail and stepped up the repression.

Fast foward 17 years to 2007 and once again the Burmese people were back on the streets. Since 1990 the country had been increasingly racked by genocide, poverty, HIV/AIDS, cholera, and famine. Much liked Mugabe has done for Zimbabwe, General Then Shwe and his military thugs had continued to turn a once prosperous nation into a living hell for its 60 million people. But in a chilling replay of the 1988 uprising, troops crushed the protests, killing thousands.

Once again, under international pressure, elections were called - for some time later this year - no one yet knows precisely when. The junta set tight elction laws- reserving seats for the military, barring Aung San Suu Kyi from running, creating a military veto and restraining opposition parties (especially from ethnic groups) to such an extent that they would barely be able to operate. Any party that does not agree to the laws by May 6th will be banned. And in refusual to legitimise military authority the NLD has done just that.

So in the ultimate injustice the party that should rightfully be in power, will technically not even exist. These are dark times for Burma.

If that's not bad enough a bloody civil war is looming. Many ethnic rebel groups have been on ceasefire for years but in the run-up to the election the junta has tried to go further and incorporate them into the military as a semi-autonomous Border Guard Force. To say that the idea is unpopular would be an understatement as many of these groups as now taking up arms to once again meet the junta head on.

Is there any hope in this sorry state of affairs? Well there is the chance that the junta has gone to far. In the past it has concentrated individual genocidal campaigns against one or two ethnic groups at a time. Now, faced with armed rebellion in several quaters it may find that it has bitten off more than it can chew.

And as for the NLD, vice-chairman Tin OO who was recently released from a long incarciration in the notorious Insein Jail has been quick to reassure the Burmese people, stating that: "In the past, we managed to work without an office and flag when our headquarters was raided and shut down for a few months. Also, some people in the office were given lengthy sentences and thrown into jail. Nevertheless, those who remained outside continued to work for the people and the NLD still existed."

Burma is about to become bloodier and more repressive than ever before - there can be no doubt about that. But defiance from ethnic groups and the NLD will continue. And as anyone who has ever stood shoulder to shoulder with Burmese refugees outside the junta's embassy will know - the defiance of the Burmese people is a force to be reckoned with.

The democracy movement will never die.

Burma Forum

Burma Campaign UK

The Irrawaddy

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