Bring pressure to bear on the Burmese generals before their sham election goes ahead

September 25, The Nation (Thailand)
Bring pressure to bear on the Burmese generals before their sham election
goes ahead

The National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide in the 1990
election in Burma, taking 392 out of the total 492 seats available. The
military junta refused to accept the election result, which led to
violence and political unrest in the country. On November 7 this year, the
Burmese people will be able to cast their first vote in 20 years. However,
the story of reviving political freedom in Burma is not as rosy as it

Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who has been under house arrest
for more than 14 years, has boycotted the upcoming election. More than
2,000 political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, are prohibited from
participating in the poll under the new election laws. Other political
parties have struggled to get their members approved in the registered
list of candidates. Bribery, censorship, oppression and a huge
registration fee of US$500 (Bt15,350) per candidate are among the
unscrupulous measures used by the junta against the political opposition.

It is obvious that the Burmese military government, led by the State Peace
and Development Council (SPDC), is manipulating the election in its effort
to retain power. Many thus cast doubt on the transparency and
inclusiveness of the election.

What does the junta really want from the election, then? Probably, it
wants to create a rubber stamp to legitimise the SPDC-led government, to
quell the international call for Burmese democracy, and ease the
international pressure that demands an improvement in the dreadful record
of human rights' violations in Burma.

Does the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which Burma is
a member, suspect the real intention of the junta in setting up the
election under these shoddy conditions? Yes, of course. Asean has offered
to send election observers - and this could increase the credibility of
the poll - but to no avail. The junta immediately turned down the

So why does Asean still view the situation optimistically, and why doesn't
the regional organisation state its honest criticism in public? There are
three reasons. First, each individual Asean member is interconnected with
the junta in terms of business, political and security advantages. No one
wants to upset the generals.

Second, the diversity of Asean creates a huge technical problem for
regional cooperation. By definition, it is hard to compromise between the
different interests of the 10 member nations. And with very wide gaps in
economic and social development, as well as a huge variation in the
political systems among the Asean members, it is even harder for this very
diverse regional grouping to come up with agreed collective action.

Finally, Asean has always lacked so-called "institutional power". The
grouping has become a legal entity under the Asean Charter of 2008. But
Asean is not a supranational organisation like the EU, which has
established a regional parliament that is elected by European citizens.
Asean as an institution does not possess a regional autonomous power
structure to manage regional problems. Instead, the 10 Asean leaders are
hidden behind a unified image of Asean. The rules of consensus and
consultation in making policy decisions, the policy of non-interference
that enhances national sovereignty, and the power of state leaders are all
strongly preserved within Asean.

In fact, Asean as a regional organisation has no power to bargain with
Burma, or to demand that the junta adheres to the values of human rights
and democracy, even under the terms of its own Charter.

The statements made by the Asean chair and the secretary-general in
response to Burma issues are thus always restrained, optimistic and
opaque. This indeed reflects the deficient power of Asean as an
institution in coping with regional problems and controlling its members'

Knowing its own weaknesses, Asean should therefore seek cooperation with
third parties, especially the United Nations, the United States and the
European Union, to put additional pressure on Burma to reform.

Before the election in November, at least three significant meetings are
scheduled. First, this weekend, the 10 Asean leaders will meet with US
President Obama in New York on the sidelines of the annual UN General
Assembly. In this meeting, the issue of Burma's election will be on the
agenda, as well as the issue of tensions in the South China Sea. The
second event is the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) to be held in Brussels on
October 4 and 5. And finally, from October 28-30, Asean leaders will
convene in Hanoi for a summit meeting and bilateral meetings with
extra-regional partners including the United States and the EU.

The international community must give greater priority to concern over the
actions of the Burmese junta. Asean and the UN should jointly call for an
immediate meeting to evaluate the election situation. There are only a few
weeks left before the poll. The international community should not give
up. We need another big push to ensure political rights and freedom for
the Burmese people, and also to prevent possible unrest and bloodshed as a
consequence of this fraudulent election set-up.

Sarinna Areethamsirikul is a lecturer at Naresuan University.


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