Roundtable: Strategies for 2010

Htet Aung Kyaw

Feb 10, 2009 (DVB), The military regime's planned 2010 election has aroused fierce debate within the Burmese political community between those who reject the idea of participation outright and others who advocate a pragmatic approach.

While the National League for Democracy has condemned the holding of an election without recognising the result of the previous election in 1990, other political figures have argued that, since the election will be held regardless of any opposition, the only option is participation.

DVB asked a range of political figures for their views on participation in the upcoming elections and the prospects for change.

Shan leader Shwe Ohn said he did not support the election, but felt that participation was the most practical course of action.

SO: "I have said from the beginning that I don’t like it, I don’t support it. But I have to accept it inevitably. Supporting it is different from accepting it. We shouted out against the referendum. But it’s finished. We do not like the way it finished. But we have no strength to destroy it. I think it will hurt us more if we keep on shouting when there is no possibility of change. In politics it is called a ‘fait accompli’. It has happened. It has nothing to do with whether we like it or not. Even if we do not like it we have to accept it if we can’t dismantle it. In politics, it’s called realpolitik. We can’t keep on imagining things are the way we want them to be, good and useful to people. Realpolitik is doing things based on the actual circumstances.

"We say that our aim is to reach Nirvana but instead we have turned up in hell. When in hell, we have to behave in accordance with the rules of hell. But we will continue to reach for Nirvana. Things will go completely awry if we act like we are in Nirvana while we are still in hell."

87-year old Shwe Ohn attended 1947 Panglong conference as a reporter and has been involved in politics ever since.

He was also arrested with other renowned Shan leaders such as Khun Tun Oo in 2005 for discussing Shan affairs and the national convention, and placed under house arrest for a year.

But his critics say that he has recently been focusing more on his solo efforts and distributing leaflets than on working for collective interests.

Aye Lwin, leader of the rival 88 Generation Students group, said the election was the only hope of bringing about change.

AL: "The 88 pro-democracy struggle is not over and there are many reasons for that. They are talking about the 2008 referendum, about 2010, about the 1990 election. By just talking about it, we are not going to become a democratic country. People are talking about it because it is not happening.

"In reality, the people need to have a political arena where they can represent themselves. That will only happen when there is an election , we can hold it and get the results. By just saying what we want about a hopeless matter and having nothing in our heads, we will get nowhere. By combining what we want with the conditions in 2010, we will be able to see the end of military rule and the beginning of the path to a multi-party system. We believe that we will be able to do these two things. We understand this as the pragmatic way."

Sai Leik, a leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, said that the SNLD would not consider participating in the election unless detained party leaders were released.

SL: "No election law has come out for the 2010 election yet. Even when the law does come out, we won’t consider it unless our chairman Khun Tun Oo and secretary Sai Nyunt Lwin and others are released. Currently, we are neither thinking about nor preparing for the election. Whatever we do, unless political prisoners are released and talks are held, there can be no political solution."

Arakan League for Democracy leader Aye Thar Aung, who is also secretary of the Committee Representing the People's Parliament, completely rejected the idea that the election could bring about democracy in Burma.

ATA: "It is unacceptable to do nothing after holding an election and start planning a new one. The 2010 election cannot be seen as a democratic election. The 2010 election must be seen in connection with the constitution ratified in 2008. The election can’t benefit the people or the ethnic nationalities."

Senior NLD leader Win Tin said any election based on the 2008 constitution would be unacceptable.

WT: "I reject the constitution. I have no faith in it. Not only the constitution, I reject the military government’s gilded national convention. In 1993, I told US congressman Bill Richardson [that] I would not accept the constitution that emerged from that convention. You need not talk to me about that. I will not give any thought to the election to this day. But due to the wisdom and consideration expected from a leader, I have to moderate myself into reconsideration.

"Although the constitution was ratified by a referendum, it has not yet been confirmed. It will only be confirmed after the election is called and the parliament is convened. The country doesn’t like this constitution which has not been ratified and we do not like it either. The world doesn’t like it either. In this situation, we advised them to revise and amend it. There has been no response to our offer. As long as there is no response and the constitution is unacceptable, we will neither think nor talk about the election."

Chan Tun, a veteran politician and former diplomat, said the opposition should only participate if certain conditions were met to ensure the election was fair.

CT: "It is nothing to do with experience. There is only demand and that's what we won’t get. In fact, it is a question of doing what is possible. They say they will hold the election in 2010. What I want to say is that the government has to release all political prisoners including Daw Aung San Auu Kyi, U Tin Oo, Dr Zaw Myint Maung, students such as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and so on , more than 2000 prisoners in all. After their release, they must be allowed to form political parties and rally people. The law that says that those who have married foreigners must not take part in politics must be abolished.

"During the elections in Bangladesh, around 200,000 observers were allowed, including about 2000 or 3000 foreigners. In Burma too, foreigners must be allowed to observe and all journalists from the world media must be allowed to come. If this is the case, we should contest the election. Or, we must dare to protest with a big crowd of, let’s say, 80,000-100,000 people, and dare to be arrested. At least 20,000, 30,000 could be arrested. We need to dare do it or be able to do it. Or, we must dare to fight with arms. If this is not the case, we must contest the election and demand our rights."

Dr Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who now concentrates on social work, said he had not yet decided with to take part in the election.

KZW: "I haven’t decided whether to take part as no law has been issued. As I am a former political prisoner, I might not be allowed to contest even if I want to. Things didn’t turn out as people expected in 88. But it also depends on us. We have had many opportunities in the past, but we lost them. It is harder to regain them now. Generally, the interest of people [in politics] is very low. We have to try very hard to make people interested again. I have very low expectations. People are very poor and have to struggle to survive. A [Union Solidarity and Development Association] member said that his interest was very low. 'Nothing has happened in the past and what can happen now?' he said. People will focus on their struggle for survival. Even if the road to politics is open, you have to try very hard to get the people to participate."

The ALD's Aye Thar Aung came back to the idea of political pragmatism.

ATA: "Some people joined and worked with the [Burma Socialist] Programme Party in the past with the hope that they could change the party or individual members [from within]. In reality, they were unable to change the BSPP or its leading figures. In this day and age, if you think that you will get democracy and ethnic national rights by going along with the 2010 election, you are living in a dream world , no , you are just giving excuses, that’s how I see it."

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