Burma’s Potemkin Election

By l'Hon. Irwin Cotler on November 4, 2010

This week, Burma will hold its first election in two decades. In the last election – May, 1990 – the National League for Democracy, lead by Aung San Suu Kyi – now an honourary Canadian citizen -- won in a landslide. Rather than taking office as Prime Minister, Suu Kyi was promptly placed under house arrest where she has remained for fifteen of the last twenty years. The military junta, which had ruled the country continually since a coup d’état in 1962, continued its reign – as if an election never even occurred.

In the run up to the elections, United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-Moon reiterated his call – abstracted from the harsh reality on the ground – for “credible democratic transition and national reconciliation, including the holding of free, fair and inclusive elections” in Burma. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma was closer to the mark when he stated that, “it is clear that this process remains deeply flawed”, though this too is a gross understatement.

Indeed, a network of restrictions have severely limited freedom of expression, assembly and association, basic requirements for any free and fair democratic elections to begin with. Moreover, parties not backed by the Government have been required to register, while the high cost of registering candidates – the registration fee being equal to Burma’s annual per capita GDP – simply excludes many candidates. In addition, a number of ethnic parties have themselves been excluded, while voting has been cancelled in 300 villages in ethnic areas. Further, there are 2,000-plus prisoners of conscience in Burma, such as Ms. Suu Kyi, who are prevented from participating in the election, while 80 per cent of the candidates are from parties loyal to the junta.

Even if the election process had any semblance of fairness, it is important to recall that the elections are themselves born of a new and corrupt constitution drafted by the military junta to ensure their ultimate control over a new Parliament. Alarmingly, the constitution guarantees the military a veto over any government decision, grants the military immunity from prosecution, and ensures its leadership the right to appoint 25% of parliamentary seats – the amount necessary to block any constitutional amendment. Even more shocking is what appears to be the re-establishment of the military junta under the cover of constitutional law: an ill-defined “National Defence and Security Council” is set to replace the junta’s current Orwellian incarnation as the “Peace and Development Council”.

The junta has been responsible for countless atrocities in Burma, its actions effectively constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity. The regime’s brutality includes wide-scale forced labour, calculated use of extrajudicial killings and torture, ruthless sexual violence, forced displacement of civilians on a mass scale, denial of any legal process, and systematic and widespread repression. Indeed, over the past 16 years, the military junta’s campaign to crush all opposition – while targeting ethnic minorities – has seen over 3,000 villages razed, over one million civilians uprooted from their homes, the systematic rape of ethnic minority women, and the increasing criminalization of dissent.

These standing and flagrant violations extend also to the flouting by the junta of any legal process in the case of Ms. Suu Kyi. Indeed, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found her continued detention to be in violation of international law on six different occasions. She is due to be released – yet again – from her illegal house arrest on November 13, 2010 – six days after the fraudulent election; and while the junta cannot “legally” renew or extend Ms. Suu Kyi’s house arrest, it has continuously, and illegally, extended her house arrest as a matter of course.

In the face of all of this, what should Canada and the international community do? Simply put, the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma requires a strong, unified and unyielding international approach.

First, unequivocally reject this sham election as illegitimate, and settle for nothing less than free and fair democratic elections in Burma.

Second, reiterate calls for the release of all political Burmese prisoners. While the regime’s recent promise to release Aung San Suu Kyi at the end of her sentence has been welcomed by some, it is yet another attempt to pacify the international community. Suu Ky’s freedom – and those of similarly imprisoned dissidents – must be secured.

Third, work for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. The UN Special Rapporteur has concluded that these abuses occur as a matter of state policy and that there is more than sufficient evidence to justify the creation of such a Commission. So far, thirteen nations – including Canada – have already expressed their support for this recommendation. Such an inquiry would undercut the culture of impunity in Burma, and send a strong signal that the world will not turn a blind eye to Burmese suffering.

Fourth, adopt additional sanctions against the regime, including a comprehensive arms embargo by the UN Security Council, to prevent the junta from expanding its capacity to oppress its own people.

Fifth, promote tripartite talks among the junta, Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy – together with the country’s ethnic groups – with specific objectives, timeframes and consequences for default.

The United States just concluded an important election whose coverage has enveloped our media. The election in Burma some days later is a fateful one for the Burmese people. We should be standing and working in solidarity with them, lest we be complicit in the oppression that follows.

Irwin Cotler is Member of Parliament for Mount Royal and former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada. He is a member of the Board of Advisers of Freedom Now, a Non-Governmental Organization that represents Aung San Suu Kyi.

 

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