Friday, October 22, 2010
Sham election will prolong suffering in eastern Burma
'Health emergency' caused by block on humanitarian aid shows that junta is not about to release iron grip on citizens
Burma's election commission chairman, Thien Soe, has dismissed the need for foreign monitors during next month's general election, saying "our country has a lot of experience in elections". One wonders what planet Thien Soe has been living on these past few decades.
Meanwhile, in Bangkok last week the report "Diagnosis: Critical" said that more than half of the deaths in violence-ravaged eastern Burma are being caused by treatable illnesses, with the junta blocking access to healthcare.
A "chronic health emergency" in the ethnic areas strung along the border with Thailand means that 59 per cent of deaths are preventable, said the report.
The international community has been howling at the Burmese junta for years to open up politically, and the upcoming election, which has been widely billed as a sham, will more or less cement the military's place in the country's national politics.
The US State Department has confirmed its earlier statement, saying that they don't think "these will be credible elections". At the same time United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the General Assembly that his patience was wearing thin with the regime in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
"Myanmar's lack of engagement is deeply frustrating as it not only contradicts its stated policy of cooperation with the UN but also limits my ability to fully implement the mandate entrusted to me by the General Assembly," he said.
Separately, the special United Nations rapporteur on human rights for Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said, "The potential for these elections to bring meaningful change and improvement in the human rights situation remains uncertain."
Moreover, Quintana's report called into question the 2008 Burmese constitution, saying it "may impede the government from effectively addressing justice and accountability in the future".
Echoing leaders from the international community, Quintana called for the release of political prisoners, particularly the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, saying that this would be an "important step to establish an environment for credible, inclusive elections".
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that Suu Kyi's freedom and the release of hundreds of other political prisoners would be a welcome confidence-building measure from the military junta.
To suggest that the junta does not care at all about its international image would be misleading, however. But it has long been understood that in Burma security comes first, not the well-being of its citizens. Furthermore, it will be the Burmese generals themselves who chart the country's political future and foreign policy.
After all, this is a country that allows its civilians to bear the consequences of its fight with minority rebels through insufficient investment in healthcare and human rights abuses. The regime's blockading of access for international humanitarian aid means that the needless deaths will continue.
"The inability of the peoples of eastern Myanmar to enjoy basic rights is killing them," said Mahidol University human rights expert Sriprapha Petcharamesree in the report.
It is clear that the biggest losers in the junta's conflicts with ethnic groups are the Burmese people themselves. But there is one player that is coming out ahead - China.
This is not to say that it's all hugs and kisses between junta and China. Neither side trusts the other, but both realise they need each other. China wants Burma's raw materials and an access point to the Indian Ocean while the junta needs Beijing's protection on the international stage, namely in the UN Security Council, as well as the hard currency of its powerful neighbour.
Last year, Burma irked Beijing when it launched an attack on an armed outfit known as the Kokang Chinese, a group that controlled an autonomous region on the Burmese side of the Sino-Burma border. The attack pushed some 37, 0000 refugees, including Chinese citizens, over the border into the province of Yunnan.
Like other armed ethnic rebel groups operating in the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle, the Kokang had the unofficial backing of the Chinese Communist Party. And although the Communist Party of Burma is a thing of the past, many of these groups, such as the Kokang and the United Wa State Army, continue to enjoy a longstanding friendship with Chinese leaders. This complex interplay of alliances puts pressure on the Burmese regime.
In the final analysis, any political solution for Burma must include an exit strategy for the ruling junta. Scolding them for decades hasn't worked. It's time to think differently.
The Nation, Bangkok