Burma's diplomatic stalemate

Aung Htoo

Sep 7, 2008 (DVB), If we compare United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari's visit to Burma to a chess game, we can say that during his latest trip from to 23 August he attempted to sacrifice a queen for five pawns.

The five pawns that Gambari wanted from the State Peace and Development Council military regime in return for the extinction of the National League for Democracy were the release of political prisoners, talks between the SPDC and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, development of economy, the opening of a UN liaison office in Rangoon and the visit of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to Burma in December for political discussions.

Why do I refer these five points as pawns?

The call for the release of political prisoners is no longer new or surprising. It had been repeatedly demanded by Burma's pro-democracy moment as a whole well before Gambari mentioned it. As a representative of the UN, he should ask for more than political prisoners' freedom. Gambari should have talked about the elimination of repressive laws and the improvement of the legal and judiciary systems in the country to ensure that there would be no more arbitrary detentions in the future.

Instead of meeting between the SPDC and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Gambari should have asked the military regime to formally arrange a genuine political dialogue with political party leaders, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose parties won in the May 1990 elections.

Gambari's call to the SPDC for economic development in Burma will go nowhere since the regime does not have any capacity to bring it about.

The opening of a UN liaison office in Rangoon is also not a surprise – it is a normal procedure for the UN.

As for the visit of the UN secretary-general to Burma in December for political discussions, it is not in itself something to be much pleased about. The important thing is what he is going to talk about when he meets the junta.

I have previously suggested that Gambari's visit to Burma in August could make the situation worse for the country. I predicted that he might try to urge the SPDC to make the elections in 2010 free and fair. This kind of attempt is actually to the military regime's advantage because it supports the regime's effort to legitimise the elections.

When Gambari met with the NLD leaders in his recent trip, he actually tried to convince them to go along with his efforts regarding the 2010 elections. He tried to convince them to accept the SPDC's 2010 elections. In reality, the recognition of the 2010 elections is equivalent to the elimination of the 1990 election results and the acceptance of the 2008 state constitution. Gambari had five pawns in mind, but even before he got them he tried to undermine the queen by talking the NLD into accept the 2010 elections. We cannot condemn those who criticise Mr Gambari for doing what the SPDC wants him to do.

However, the NLD leaders could protect the queen by stating their strong demands to the military. The fact that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been at the forefront of Burma's pro-democracy movement like a queen, refused to meet with Gambari was absolutely the right step to take diplomatically.

But this diplomatic struggle was just the beginning. We should learn from it and ensure we are well prepared to continue to fight in this arena.

Our defensive line for the diplomatic struggle is the 1990 elections result. We should never take a step back from that line. Our main offensive target is the SPDC's 2008 state constitution. It is not the 2010 elections because the elections will be held on the basis of the constitution. The 2010 elections will bring the 2008 constitution into effect. If we can overturn the 2008 constitution, the 2010 elections will automatically be abandoned. Therefore, if we can let the whole world know the reasons why we cannot accept the 2008 constitution, we will be able to oppose the legitimacy of the 2010 elections very effectively.

As far as I see the situation, we still do not have a systematic working strategy to get our message out to the world of why we cannot accept the 2008 state constitution. It is worrisome to note that international governments, especially the European Union, ASEAN and Japan, have echoed Mr Gambari's views on the upcoming elections in Burma in 2010.

It is difficult for people inside Burma to find out about and understand the SPDC constitution. The military regime has never allowed its citizens to learn about the constitution and continues to prevent its people from discussing the constitution. Decree 5/96, violation of which can lead to up to 20 years' imprisonment, is still in effect.

Although activists and political leaders have studied the constitution to some extent, it has not been in enough depth due to the lack of reference books and information and the many restrictions. The constitution booklets have still not reached many townships and villages in remote areas. The majority of people in Burma have not yet read the SPDC's 2008 state constitution. It is almost impossible to access constitution-related books and papers in order to make a comparative study of the SPDC constitution against international norms.

The SPDC has intentionally created this situation. The regime does not want its people to know anything about the constitution. Nor does it want its people to study, analyse and criticise the constitution. If people don't know anything about the constitution, the regime can easily lie to them and use the constitution against them.

Therefore, on one hand the SPDC obscures constitutional issues from its people. But on the other hand, the regime tries to push for what it wants within and outside the country by claming that the new constitution has been adopted. For instance, ceasefire organisations have come under pressure to go along with the 2008 constitution. Political parties have been asked to register in order to contest the 2010 elections. Moreover, the SPDC has been calling widely for the recognition of the state constitution not only in the international arena but also at the UN, and assistance in implementing the processes set out by its own constitution.

The SPDC uses the same strategy of obscuring constitutional issues from the international community. So far, there has been no official translation of the 2008 constitution available for public use. The military regime has said it has already had an English version of the constitution prepared but this has not been made public.

Foreign countries have the capacity to study the SPDC constitution by translating it into English or their own languages but most countries have not yet done so because of the time, money and professional expertise they would have to invest. Up to now, Burma's opposition has still not come up with an exact translation of the constitution in English. There have been some analytical papers on the 2008 constitution but they have not been published in full in English. Even with the material that has been published in English, the opposition has still not been able to distribute it widely. This means that the international community cannot yet form an opinion of whether and why the SPDC constitution is good or bad. The military regime has benefited from the fact that the international community has limited knowledge about its constitution.

Conversely, I would like to point out the negligence of those who understand the 2008 constitution but go along with the SPDC by pretending they don't know where it is leading Burma. One of them is the UN special envoy Gambari. Constitutional experts at the UN office in New York have already explained the SPDC's 2008 constitution to him. Basically, Gambari must have already realised that democracy in Burma will never prevail if we follow the path of the SPDC constitution.

Understanding the motivations of Gambari, who urges people to accept the 2010 elections despite their uncertainties, is another matter. What we, the people of Burma, need to do is to tell Gambari and his superior Ban Ki-moon very firmly that we cannot accept any political process that includes the 2010 elections based on the SPDC's 2008 state constitution. If we cannot be straightforward with them, the situation of our country will worsen far more than we can imagine.

It is time to develop without further delay an inclusive working strategy to make governments all over the world understand our unwavering stance and accept our analysis of the SPDC constitution, and to convince them to support our approach.

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