We are now a month away from the first elections in Burma in 20 years. That should give us cause to celebrate. Sadly, that is wishful thinking. Burma’s 55 million people continue to suffer brutal oppression. Abject, needless poverty is, for most, a daily reality. These elections will be little more than a sham to perpetuate military rule.
So when Asian and European leaders meet on Monday in Brussels, the U.K. will be calling for us to speak with one voice against the gross mistreatment of the Burmese people.
That means being unequivocal: These elections will be neither free nor fair. Opponents of the ruling party lack resources and are systematically targeted by the current regime. Thousands of political prisoners remain incarcerated. Various ethnic parties have been refused the right to participate. Last month the military dissolved the National League for Democracy — its biggest perceived threat.
The situation is little better for those parties which are being allowed to participate. The regime they oppose has passed deeply unfair election laws and runs the election commission. In Burma all media is heavily censored by the state.
So the election result is a foregone conclusion. Under the constitution a quarter of seats are already reserved for the military. In half of the remaining seats parties loyal to the regime will run uncontested, their opponents unable to field a candidate. The regime is therefore guaranteed a substantial majority — before a single vote is even cast.
The consequence for Burma is the return to power of a ruling elite that has presided over widespread human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, rape and torture. That same regime has been guilty of profound economic mismanagement and corruption. While they routinely blame sanctions for weak development, the truth is that they have squandered Burma’s natural resources and export opportunities. The country’s infant mortality rate is now amongst the highest in Asia.
These failings are undeniable. Yet some are tempted to overlook the deep flaws in the approaching election. Clearly, it would be more convenient for the international community to quietly agree that any election is better than no election. Burma would recede in the mind, allowing us to “move on.” That is attractive for nations that insist we should not interfere in one anothers’ affairs. And the West could not be accused, as it sometimes is, of attempting to recreate the world in its own image.
These are not reasons to ignore the truth. The European Union has already made it clear that sanctions — targeted at the regime and its sources of revenue — will not be lifted until genuine progress is made on the ground. We must now work with our Asian partners, using our collective clout, to push for that progress. Members of the Asia-Europe Meeting group, or ASEM, account for nearly 60 percent of the global population — and the same proportion of global trade. Burma’s military regime should know that, until it satisfies international demands, it will meet the same disapproval whether it looks East or West.
Not only is that our shared moral duty, but it is in our strategic self-interest too. Without a process of national reconciliation in Burma, the risk of instability is real. Ethnic cease-fires look increasingly fragile. A return to conflict would have devastating humanitarian consequences, undermining regional security and leading to further refugee flows into neighboring countries and beyond.
So we must continue to exert pressure on the regime to engage all opposition and ethnic groups in a meaningful dialogue. The objective must be a fair settlement that gives ethnic groups a political voice and protects their minority rights. All prisoners of conscience — including the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi — must be released without delay. Reconciliation must be geared toward the social and economic development that has long evaded the Burmese state.
This week is an opportunity for Asian and European nations to reaffirm that message. Military men must know that swapping their uniforms for suits will not change the demands of the international community. We will not be pacified by a democratic facade. Our expectations will not drop.
Nick Clegg is deputy prime minister of Britain.