Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Myanmar's democrats face some tough choices

THE only thing certain about the Myanmar elections due this year is that they will not be free and fair.

The generals in charge of one of the world's darkest corners have written a Constitution and election laws that pre-empt the participation of the surefire winners if a proper ballot is held -- Aung San Suu Kyi and the vanguard of her National League for Democracy (NLD), who have been outlawed by imprisonment or contact with foreigners.

With Stalinist precision, the Constitution was approved in May 2008 by referendum with 98 per cent voting and 92 per cent saying yes, a mere days after Cyclone Nargis caused the country's worst natural disaster in decades.

Among some sensible regulations for the registration of political parties, the election laws decreed this month require the NLD to sack Suu Kyi if it wants to remain a legal entity.

In case the deck was not sufficiently stacked, an election commission has been set up with reliable junta members to veto any hint of a repeat of the 1990 vote -- which the NLD unexpectedly won while the soldiers were not looking, and thus had to be quickly reneged on by a return to 20 more years of military misrule.

The slow denouement of the election process has been observed by Myanmar-watchers with predictable groans of disappointment.

"The election laws are totally unacceptable to anyone with an aspiration to even appear to be democratic," said Roshan Jason, executive director of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus.

Measured against any respectable yardstick, the steps taken towards representative government are a flop. They do not go far enough to persuade anyone, inside or outside the country, that the generals of the State Peace and Development Council mean to kick themselves out of power in favour of a popularly elected civilian leadership.

But this is Myanmar -- like the proverbial dog walking on its hind legs, the surprise is less that the elections will somehow be rigged but that they are taking place at all.

That is why in the deluge of criticism on the heels of the regime's "roadmap to democracy" -- including by the United States, which has switched to a policy of engagement -- lies an undercurrent of realism.

The temptation to look through a glass brightly is exemplified by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) and others who have maintained a difficult objectivity on the highly emotive subject.

In a report last August, the ICG advised against a rush to pre-judgement. "For all the control that the regime intends to wield over the electoral process and subsequent appointment to key executive and legislative posts, Myanmar will still have a new bicameral national legislature in which representatives from different parties will sit; regional legislatures that allow for more ethnic representation than in the past; and some scope for increased interaction between civilian and military leaders, all in the context of a major generational transition at the top ranks of the military," it said.

"The Constitution may inadvertently provide the tools to open up a little space as the post-Than Shwe era grows closer."

Aging, superstitious and xenophobic, the senior general warned at the Army Day parade on Saturday against "divisive" campaigning and outside interference as armed forces personnel swap uniforms for civvies to become establishment politicians.

Many among Myanmar's diaspora intelligentsia, who have eluded the regime's paranoia and been allowed to return home regularly, are hard-headed, cautiously holding out the prospect of a despotism inching away from the shadows.

Under the new dispensation "ordinary people do not have to worry too much about transgressing rules which are not known. They will now have to contend with rules that are known", said one.

"For most of them, who are very worried about the economic situation, they might find some sort of reprieve."

That glimmer of hope has been enough to throw the NLD into a dilemma. Suu Kyi, from the sainthood of her house arrest (no TV, phone or much in the way of company), has stood firm in not wanting to have anything to do with the elections. A faction in the NLD, however, aims to take part, and prevent a slide into irrelevancy as the political vacuum is filled by surrogates less hidebound by years of unbending opposition to the regime.

If the party stays reasonably united, it could even win a majority, although that would be hobbled by the military's guarantee of a quarter of seats in Parliament. A crisis conclave of party representatives on Monday chose Suu Kyi's moral high ground, refusing to register under what they considered "unjust" laws.

Last week, at the Puchong, Selangor, premises of the NLD foreign affairs committee, whose reception room is draped with posters of Suu Kyi, chairman Kyaw Kyaw awaited the decision with trepidation.

He and most of the estimated 5,000 political exiles in Malaysia believe that the vote is being foisted on an electorate whose aptitude for political choices has been maimed by ignorance, poverty and despair. Few are thought to understand the Constitution, to which so many had allegedly assented.

Kyaw has been on the lam since 1996, not long after he was jailed in Yangon's notorious Insein prison at the age of 16 for student agitation. He and the 11 dissidents of the committee, which is headquartered in Bangkok and has offices in eight other countries, face arrest in Myanmar. With the NLD confronting dissolution and the generals ascendent, their chances of going back to the families they left behind are vanishingly remote.

Many in Asean blame Myanmar for bringing Africa to Southeast Asia, the latest manifestation of which is United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur Tomas Quintana's allegation of gross abuses and crimes against humanity. But they also know that the 10-member grouping's leverage is limited.

As long as there is movement towards elections, no matter how crabbed or crooked, the generals can count on the international community not treating them worse than it does now. KAMRUL IDRIS for the New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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