Sunday, February 10, 2008

Myanmar/Burma To Hold Referendum and Elections

Sources: ABC News, Voice of America, Financial Times

Myanmar, which has been under military rule since 1962, will hold a constitutional referendum in May, with subsequent elections to be held in 2010. No elections have been held since 1990, when the military refused to hand over power to the winning parties. Furthermore, the state has been without a constitution since 1988, when the current military junta discarded it. Myanmar last held a constitutional referendum in 1973.

The election announcement has been met with skepticism and cynicism. While some citizens think this may be a small step forward, others believe the election will be rigged and military junta will retain its power. Debbie Stothardt, spokesperson for human-rights group "Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma," stated that this “is another delay tactic to get international pressure off Burma and also off China in the lead up to the Olympics,” and that "China has been supporting this regime and this has actually allowed this regime to be quite recalcitrant.”

Many of these observers argue that the election will be meaningless because the constitutional referendum process is flawed. There are charges that the current junta essentially wrote the current draft constitution, and thus cannot guarantee the essential rights necessary for democracy and human rights. Furthermore, because the actual draft of the constitution has not yet been publicly released, there are accusations that opponents do not have the time to build the case against the draft. More importantly, most of the anti-government activists are in jail after last year’s anti-government revolts. Finally, critics point out that this new constitution will merely give a civilian-twist to the same old military rule. This is because 25% of the parliamentary seats will be reserved for military appointees, and the military still reserves the right to declare martial law.

Question: If the pro-democracy activists successfully defeat the constitutional referendum, what will the next step be? Besides sanctions and “political pressures” what can the international community do to promote democracy in Myanmar?

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