Sunday, 7 November 2010

Burma and the junta's lost election

Yesterday I was invited to speak at a demonstration opposing the Burmese military junta’s sham election. A strong turnout of around 500 showed the strength of feeling against this façade and the final rally outside the junta’s embassy was truly inspirational. At this point one of the other speakers’ messages really stuck out for me: Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK took the microphone and announced that the junta – who have 25% of parliamentary seats reserved and whose proxy parties will likely win most of the remainder –had already lost the election.

Of course he is right. The Generals’ intention in staging this mockery (any process where leading opposition figures are banned, foreign journalists are arrested, ballots are rigged and voters are intimidated is hardly worthy of being deemed an “election”) was to legitimise themselves on the international stage. And in this regard they have categorically failed. With a few exceptions including the junta’s usual backers such as China (and -in a shame shameful surprise- Germany) the international community resoundingly rejected the election’s outcome before voting began.

Rather than fool the world therefore, all that Senior General Than Shwe and his military thugs have done by staging the vote is to draw international attention to Burma once again (coverage including front page newspaper articles and special despatches have raised further awareness about the nation’s plight) whilst galvanising global political and public support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD – who were democratically elected to govern in 1990 before the junta annulled that election’s result, imprisoned Suu Kyi and eventually forced the NLD’s disbandment as a formal political party.

The positive worldwide response not only indicates the growing conviction of governments and international organisations –including the United Nations – to stand up to the junta; it also vindicates the NLD’s decision to boycott the poll. The move had caused a significant degree of debate in the democratic movement – with several NLD members breaking away to form the National Democratic Force (NDF) and standing for 163 seats in Rangoon. Like many, I was initially torn between the mainstream NLD’s assertion that contesting the election would give it legitimacy whilst allowing no democratic process; and the NDF’s position that as the poll was going ahead anyway it was important for democratic candidates to be involved.

At the time of writing the NDF has won just one seat in the new “People’s Parliament”, whilst the junta’s proxy party- the USDP (a military-led revamp of the USDA militia which attacked and murdered Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters in 2003) has been successful in every other constituency declared thus far. Had the NLD taken part it would have undoubtedly been in a similar situation but international criticism of the process would have been far harder. Of course, activists and governments would have still stood up to the violent intimidation and blatant vote rigging, but the latent legitimisation that would have been bestowed by NLD involvement could easily have undermined the kind of wholesale rejection of the junta’s pre-ordained result that we are currently witnessing.

So what next?

Pressure will now undoubtedly continue to mount for Suu Kyi’s release when her current house-arrest sentence expires next Saturday. And if she is to walk to freedom, the domestic democratic movement -wich would be buoyed by both the international support it is currently experiencing and the return of its leader- could pose its biggest threat to the generals since 2007, when street protests almost brought down the regime. Of course the state of effective martial law that currently exists throughout Burma and the increasing human rights abuses resulting from the heightened state of security make it hard to be optimistic; but the junta has been unsuccessful in its attempt to fool the world and has failed in achieving the raison d’être of its sham election. Than Shwe and his cronies may find that their biggest challenge is still to come.

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