Thursday 14 December 2017

Little hope of true democracy in Burmese elections

Burma's constitution only increases the military leaders' iron grip on power, writes Ivana Bacik

Elections are due to be held in Burma today under the control of the so-called State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) -- Burma's ruling military regime.

These will be the first elections held in Burma since 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won 82 per cent of the vote. At the time, the military regime refused to accept the election result and instead stepped in with their own 'roadmap to democracy', including their proposed constitution, drafted in 2008 but which will come into force today as a direct result of the elections.

However, far from upholding democratic principles, the 2008 constitution will serve to entrench and legitimise military rule in Burma. More worryingly, it will suppress any criticisms or challenges to the ruling military regime.

Under the terms of the 2008 constitution, the commander-in-chief of the defence services has the power to appoint a staggering 25 per cent of seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament. The president, who must also be chosen from the ranks of the military, must fill key ministerial positions from a list supplied by the military commander-in-chief (these are the ministers of defence, security/home affairs, and border affairs).

The enactment of the new constitution will also mean that the military cannot be questioned or challenged; criticism of the army, state, or constitution will be strictly forbidden. With strict censorship imposed across the state-controlled media, independent media reports on election issues will continue to be highly restricted. Political candidates will be required to defend the 2008 constitution and its ethos under the election laws, and if they fail to do so their parties will be disbanded or abolished.

The number of political prisoners in Burma now stands at an all-time high, at 2,193 individuals. Many of these have opposed or challenged the military policies of the regime, and have campaigned for the democracy movement. Most infamously, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has now spent 15 years in detention or under house arrest -- despite her party's success at the polls in 1990. This detention has repeatedly been declared unlawful by the UN under international law.

Even when or if they are released, Burma's many political prisoners will be forbidden to join or form a political party, and will be unable to stand for election. They will not even be permitted to express any public challenge to the ruling regime.

Other individuals and groups will also be denied access to political office -- for example, civil servants, Buddhist monks, and members of other religious orders. Finally, polls in ethnic areas have been cancelled, resulting to date in the disenfranchisement of 1.5 million voters.

These appalling breaches of civic and human rights, to be enshrined in the new Burmese constitution, are bad enough -- but article 445 of the constitution also seeks to ensure that there will never be accountability for any of these breaches. The article states that no legal action can be taken against members of the ruling parties once they carry out their duties "according to their responsibilities". This aims to provide a blanket legal immunity to the ruling military regime, which is expressly empowered to "restrict and suspend" fundamental rights of citizens even further if a state of emergency is declared.

Burma Action Ireland has for many years been highlighting the dreadful abuses of human rights being perpetrated in Burma. I am very grateful to them for providing an extensive briefing on the current situation in Burma, and on the likely consequences of the forthcoming election. I fully support their recommendations, which are aimed at improving the situation for the millions of Burmese people who are suffering under the regime.

In particular, I believe that Ireland and the EU should support a revived high-level UN-led initiative to secure negotiations between the democracy movement, ethnic minorities and the military. I also believe that the EU should officially support a UN Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma.

Finally, all those concerned by the ongoing repression in Burma should agree that there should be no relaxation of EU sanctions until we see real progress towards democratic change, to include the release of all political prisoners and the holding of genuinely free and fair elections.

Ivana Bacik is Labour Senator for Dublin University

Sunday Independent

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