Wed 13 Feb 2008
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
For many of Burma’s 55m people, their military rulers’ weekend declaration of a national referendum on a new constitution came as a big shock.
Just a few months ago, the junta made a high-profile start to talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s Nobel Prize-winning opposition leader and democracy campaigner, ostensibly for a dialogue on Burma’s political future.
But the regime’s decision to push through a controversial military-sponsored charter has been taken as a clear signal of its unwillingness to compromise with the democratic opposition and with ethnic minorities on substantial political issues.
Under the new constitution, 25 per cent of the seats in a new parliament would be reserved for military appointees, the army chief would choose some key ministers, and the army could seize power in a state of emergency. Ethnic minorities have complained that the draft charter does not give them sufficient local autonomy.
Still, for some Burmese, accepting the charter – in spite of its flaws – is the only realistic hope of altering the increasingly unbearable status quo of unchecked military power.
â€œThere is no alternative,â€ said Ma Theingi, a Rangoon-based writer who once served as Ms Suu Kyi’s personal assistant but disagreed with her stand on economic sanctions. â€œAt least after this is done we can step forward to elections.â€
â€œHowever big a role the military has in the constitution in the future, now they have 100 per cent power,â€ she said. â€œYou can’t expect perfection at a stroke. There can be amendments later – it’s not like we have to live with this for the next 100 years.â€
She said she also feared that â€œif people refuse the smallest change, we have to go back to square oneâ€.
Opposition activists, however, are already calling on the Burmese to reject what they call a charter to â€œlegalise the military dictatorshipâ€, although they admit that campaigning will be tough, given that dissident leaders are imprisoned or on the run amid a harsh crackdown on dissent.
â€œThis is a declaration of war by the military regime against the people of Burma,â€ the 88 Generation Students group said, adding that the referendum would be a â€œmajor battlefieldâ€ in the struggle with the regime.
In an interview from his hiding place, Soe Htun, a member of the group, told the Financial Times: â€œThis sham constitution is not for our people’s sake but for the army and their relatives. We have to organise people to reject it. It’s difficult but we have to try within the two months.â€
Exiled dissidents also said they were gearing up to campaign against the charter, using radio, leaflets, CDs and other channels that bypass heavily-censored state-controlled media.
â€œThis one-sided constitution is not the right thing,â€ said Nyo Ohn Myint, an exiled member of Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which won a landslide 1990 election victory but was barred from taking power. â€œIf [the] military win, it will be more legitimacy for them.â€
Inside Burma, the NLD has so far reacted cautiously to the referendum. With Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest, the party’s elderly acting leaders have been wary of any overt moves that could result in the party being banned, or in exclusion from future elections.
Nyo Ohn Myint believes the NLD leaders will soon take a public stand against the charter. â€œThis is do or die,â€ he said. Yet like other Burmese, he conceded that even if the campaign to mobilise voters were successful, it could prove a pyrrhic victory. â€œIf the referendum fails, the generals will keep power longer.â€