By Naw Zipporah Sein and Khu Oo Reh
THIS WEEK in 1947, our ethnic leaders signed the historic Panglong Agreement, which envisioned a free Burma in which our people could live together in peace. Within a year, Burma gained its independence from the British. Yet, half a century later, Burma is still not free. Successive military regimes have, over the past 50 years, attempted to achieve “unity”, not through dialogue, but with the barrel of a gun. This year, while preparing for the 2010 elections, the junta is trying to achieve a sham democracy through force.
There are those in the international community who believe the elections will provide an opportunity for change. Even if there was the chance for “free and fair” elections, the regime has guaranteed its hold on power through its self-crafted 2008 constitution. The constitution, to be enacted through the elections, will create a new parliament with a civilian facade, while entrenching the current structure where the non-elected commander-in-chief is the most powerful person in the country. Any hope for change is made impossible with the military’s approval needed for constitutional amendments.
Most critically, the constitution and elections will provide no respite from suffering for our people. While preparing for the first elections in 20 years, the junta has shown no desire to resolve conflicts through peaceful means. Instead, it is taking extreme measures to destroy the opposition – adding to the more than 2,100 political leaders and activists already in prison and stepping up attacks to wrest power from ethnic armed and unarmed groups. The new constitution will only further systemise this discrimination against ethnic people.
These elections, the last step in the military’s sham “roadmap to democracy”, are the biggest threat yet to the vision of Panglong. People may ask, why can’t we go along with the regime’s plan and participate in these elections? This is because they deny the things we have been fighting for all these years – equality and federalism.
In the half century of military rule, it is our people who have paid the highest price. This is why we cannot accept a false democracy that legitimises the military’s control and subjugation of the Burmese people. Since independence, our myriad ethnic groups – which make up over 40 per cent of Burma’s population – have never enjoyed political or economic equality with the majority. Since the first military coup in 1962, the junta has systematically implemented a policy of “Burmanisation”, inundating our culture with the mainstream Burmese culture, and tightly restricting the freedom to teach our languages in schools and practice our traditions.
As leaders of Burma’s ethnic resistance, we have seen the devastating consequences of the regime’s tactics against our people. Now, it is only hastening efforts to wipe out any remaining resistance prior to the 2010 elections. Just last year, military offensives in eastern Burma forced more than 43,800 ethnic people to flee the country, just the latest wave of refugees streaming over Burma’s borders. Some of these attacks were part and parcel of the regime’s ongoing policy of targeting ethnic civilians in order to undermine its opposition. The junta’s tactic, often referred to as “draining the ocean so the fish cannot swim”, has destroyed more than 3,500 villages in eastern Burma in the last 10 years.
The regime has also increased hostility against ethnic ceasefire groups, to further consolidate control before the elections. It wants to force them to join a new Border Guard Force under the command of the SPDC army. Its strategy? A continuation of its divide-and-rule policy, which mobilises proxy ethnic forces to help the military regime attack and commit crimes against their own ethnic people.
Already, preparations for the elections have only served to aggravate the explosive situation in Burma and the racist constitution will only foment further chaos. Much like the 1983 apartheid constitution of South Africa, the Burmese constitution aims to legitimise majority rule through the token participation of ethnic people in a new parliament. Like its apartheid South African counterpart, Burma’s new constitution deprives ethnic people of fundamental rights, and makes it virtually impossible for them to have any real political representation. Instead of recognising our demands for equality and federalism, the regime is trying to cement its control over ethnic areas, to guarantee its continued profit from the rich natural resources in these areas. And by providing the regime blanket immunity for past war crimes and crimes against humanity, the constitution sanctions the continuation of these atrocities.
As leaders of the ethnic resistance movement, we know that this election is not a solution to the crises faced by our people. More than ever, we are working closely together with our pro-democracy brothers and sisters on the path to true national reconciliation. We believe that to even begin to hope for democratic progress, three essential benchmarks must be met:
l The release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who still commands deep respect and admiration from ethnic groups;
l The cessation of attacks against ethnic communities; and
l Dialogue with all stakeholders, including a review of the 2008 constitution.
These demands are in line with Suu Kyi, the NLD and other pro-democratic forces inside and in exile and were echoed by the UN General Assembly in a Christmas Eve resolution.
If the regime refuses to meet these benchmarks, we need world leaders to take their efforts one step further, as they did when South Africa held its apartheid elections in 1984. Back then, the UN Security Council rallied to the cause of black South Africans, by declaring its racist constitution “null and void”, and calling on governments not to recognise the result of the elections.
South Africa’s road to freedom was a long and tortuous one, but a people’s movement, supported by the world, was able to bring the racist regime to an end. Our struggle for equality and freedom in Burma has been long, but we are more united than ever before. Instead of calling for “free and fair” elections, which simply buys into the regime’s plan, the international community should call on the junta to meet the benchmarks, and if they do not, denounce the elections and not recognise the results.Naw Zipporah Sein is the General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU) and Khu Oo Reh is the General Secretary of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).