Will Burma's referendum spark civil unrest?

Htet Aung Kyaw

Mar 6, 2008 (DVB), When the Burmese military regime announced plans for a referendum and general election, some diplomats said it was a step towards democracy. But it could also spark civil unrest.

There were mixed reactions from Burma’s democratic forces when the ruling junta announced plans to hold a constitutional referendum in May followed by an election in 2010, without any discussion with opposition groups or the international community.

Some leading activists in Rangoon called for a boycott of the vote, while some exile groups urged people to go to the polling station to vote "No".

But the main opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, has not yet given any clear message on whether to boycott or to vote "No", but has urged political and legal reform.

"We will declare our tactical plan when the authorities announce the date of the referendum," says Thein Nyunt, NLD spokesperson for constitutional affairs.

"If we announce our plan before that time comes, it is like debating the name of a child who is not yet born."

Legal challenges

A day after this comment, NLD chairman Aung Shwe tried to sue the junta at the Rangoon high court for breaking the promise they made in the 1990 election.

"According to the electoral law of 1989 and decree 1/90, the junta has a responsibility to call a people’s parliamentary meeting with the elected representatives from the 1990 general election," another spokesperson, Nyan Win, told DVB.

However, the court rejected their lawsuit under pressure from Naypyidaw.

In fact, this is the first time NLD has filed a lawsuit on the election result, although the court has rejected many other cases brought by the NLD.

"International law institutes and the UN legal experts should seriously consider this legal dispute," Nyan Win said.

Just before this lawsuit, the NLD issued a strongly-worded policy statement.

"The one-sided text prepared by the authorities could not only harm the national reconciliation process but also cannot be accepted by the people," the party said.

"It is against the advice and demands of international organisations, including the United Nations. All relevant persons should be included in the process of drafting the state constitution and the transformation of the nation."

Fomenting unrest

While the NLD has focused on legal issues, many youth organizations have threatened to hold a mass protest against the referendum, including Generation Wave, a youth group which was founded during September's saffron revolution.

"We urge the authorities to bring about a free and fair situation before the end of March. Otherwise, we must lead people to protest as we did in last September," says Kyaw Kyaw of Generation Wave.

Generation Wave is part of an alliance, with the 88 Generation Student Group, which played a leading role in the September protests.

The group has called on the government to release Aung San Suu Kyi and other key political prisoners, to allow UN-led independent observer groups and international media into the country and to withdraw the law which mandates 20 years in jail for criticising the National Convention.

The threat comes not only from idealistic youths in Rangoon but also from armed ethnic groups in the border areas.

"We have boycotted the national convention since they rejected our proposals. Therefore, we cannot now accept this one sided convention," says Aung Ma-nge, spokesperson of the New Mon State Party, which has signed a ceasefire agreement with the junta.

Khun Myint Htun, a leading member of the Thai border-based Member of Parliament Union, agreed with Aung Ma-nge.

"We must fight against this one-sided referendum every step of the way. We, the people in the border area, must boycott while the people in the cities are voting 'No'," he said.

It is not easy to protest against the referendum. The junta issued a new referendum law last week which provides for a three-year jail term for anyone who distributes leaflets or makes speeches against the referendum.

The junta’s mob, the 27 million-strong Union Solidarity Development Association, is ready to beat those who protest.

Can the international community have any influence?

In this scenario, who can help to avoid another bloody crackdown in this country of political turmoil? Could it be UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who is visiting Burma this week? There is no 100% guarantee but there is a 50-50% chance of some progress.

"We hope during my next visit to discuss with [junta officials] and … try to persuade them to reconsider so that this constitution would be broader," Gambari told the Kyodo news after he met the Japanese foreign minister on the final stop of his regional tour.

The US and EU have also pressed the junta to reconsider their one-sided plan.

"A credible political transition in Burma must be inclusive and transparent. It must involve universal suffrage, secrecy and security of the ballot, and freedom of speech and association, among other internationally accepted standards," the US State Department said in a statement.

"It needs to involve the National League for Democracy, and be a process which can genuinely lead to democracy," said Meg Munn, a British foreign office minister.

Gambari met this weekend with UN chief Ban Ki-Moon in New York prior to his return to Burma. During his last two trips, the junta agreed to his proposal for discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi, but no significant progress has been made in the five months since then.

Can Gambari make any significant progress in his final mission? That depends on how strongly the UN Security Council backs his mission.

It also depends on the NLD and activists having the strength and organisation to protest against the referendum.

Htet Aung Kyaw is a senior journalist for the Oslo-Based Democratic Voice of Burma radio and TV station.

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