Monday, 8 November 2010

Burma erupts

Just 24 hours after the sham election came to a close, Burma is in a new period of political and humanitarian chaos. As expected the junta’s proxy party- the USDP, is romping home on the back of stolen ballot boxes, violent intimidation and flagrant vote rigging up and down the country - not to mentioned the disenfranchisement of the millions living in areas deemed “too dangerous” (i.e. too opposed to the junta) for polling stations to be set up in.

Bravely, a number of Burma’s citizens have run the gauntlet of resisting the junta, by voting for democratic opposition parties; resulting in a handful of parliamentary seats for the NDF (the faction of the NLD that broke off to contest the elections) and ethnic Inn, Rakhine and Shan groupings. Low voter turnout (some reports suggest just 45%), following NLD-led calls for a boycott, is also indicative of public defiance. Yet in spite of such developments, a USDP victory is well and truly stitched up. The few opposition party victories have been by the junta partly because the strength of local opposition support is just too strong to cover-up but mainly because in such a limited number cases they will make little difference to the parliament’s overall make-up, especially given the 20% of seats reserved for the military. Any result that would provide genuine representation for opposition parties was brazenly prevented; for example whilst the pro-democracy Shan Nationalities Development Party has been formally awarded three of the seats it rightfully won, other constituency where it enjoys almost total support went to the USDP when lines of coerced villages were forcibly marched to the ballot boxes by party officials.

However whilst the election is largely ‘in hand’, real turbulence is unfolding in the Karen region. Here the junta has long pursued a policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing involving mass-rapes, village-burnings and systematic massacres. The small and fully justified Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) – a determined but militarily weak rebel group- has long done what it can to defend its people; however since 1994 the junta has orchestrated a ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy involving bribery, murder, trickery and exploitation of the KNLA’s Christian/Buddhist mix; to lure some regiments into a breakaway junta-allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). Since its inception the DKBA has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities against its fellow Karen people –utilising guns, mines and artillery provided by the junta.

But the Generals’ attempt to absorb the DKBA into their own military set-up as a Border Guard Force ruled from Naypidaw was a step too far. Yesterday, tensions bubbling away for months erupted and in a amazing volta face a brigade of DKBA troops turned on the junta, seizing control of a polling station and police station. By this afternoon they had taken the militarily strategic Three Pagodas Pass, torched government building and declared allegiance with the democracy movement. The KNLA immediately responded by laying aside sixteen years of conflict and sending troops to join them. The democratic uprising has come at a cost – a counter attack by the junta has already begun and anywhere between 5000-30 000 Karen civilians have fled across the Thai border to escape the escalating conflict.

In the unfolding humanitarian tragedy there are signs that Senior General Than Shwe and his fellow military thugs are losing control - at least to some extent. Their sham election has been rejected by the international community, Burmese citizens are defying their intimidation; and attempts to bolster their own military strength along the Thai border have dissolved into the loss of an ally and the emergence of a fresh ethnic insurgency. It’s certainly not the smooth and quiet transfer from uniforms to suits that they hoped would win them legitimacy in the eyes of the world whilst maintaining a tight grip on power.

No one knows what will happen in Burma over the coming days, let alone weeks and months. Predictions can barely stretch beyond a best-guest in a situation that is changing far quicker than even many experienced Burma watchers anticipated. Yet one thing is for certain- these are historic times. All eyes now will turn to the scheduled release of Aung San Suu Kyi this Saturday. If the junta extends her detention once again, the growing international clamour against them will reach new heights and the last pathetic attempts to portray themselves as democratic reformers will falter. If they release her, under the un-ignorable pressure they find themselves, it will provide the biggest boost possible for a democracy movement that the voter defiance and armed resistance of the past 48 hours has shown to be far from defeated.

Up to the minute news:

The Irrawaddy

Democratic Voice of Burma

Election incidents/developments map


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