“If you are patriotic and you love your nation, you must give an affirmative vote,” state-run television told Burmese citizens a few days before the 10 May referendum, in which Burmese citizens voted on whether to adopt a draft new constitution. Such appeals were supported by performances by popular singers and other celebrities, chanting slogans such as “This is the responsibility of every citizen, so go to the polling booth and approve the constitution!”
Undaunted by the scale of the damage caused by Cyclone Nargis – which just a week earlier had killed some 80,000 people, and rendered homeless more than two million – and against calls by the United Nations, the regime went ahead with the referendum, which had only been announced in February. In such an atmosphere, even in the state of extreme shock, voters across the country were forced to go to polling stations. Only in a handful of the hardest-hit areas, including parts of Rangoon, were polls postponed for two weeks.
Not only was this fixation on going forward with the vote largely inexplicable, it was downright detrimental. “The relief efforts are being hampered by the junta’s obsession with getting the referendum vote over and done with,” said a Western diplomat based in Rangoon, on condition of anonymity. “The government’s attitude is that the referendum is the top priority, and the cyclone is an inconvenience. We believe any government’s priority should be the humanitarian response.” A second Western diplomat in Rangoon called the referendum the “final act of a tragic farce. While millions struggle to survive, the generals forced people to vote for a constitution that few had seen and even fewer supported. Then they had the audacity to ensure that virtually everyone cast their ballot in favour.”
Only in Burma would the government proceed with a sham democratic exercise against the backdrop of one of the worst disasters of the current generation. Indeed, by late May UN officials were warning that the aftermath of the cyclone was shaping up to be a worse humanitarian crisis then even the 2004 tsunami, the effect of which had been spread across several countries.
Following the referendum, the Burmese attorney-general, Aung Toe, along with the head of the committee that organised the vote, stated that 99 percent of the 22.5 million eligible voters had turned up at polling stations. More to the point, the two announced that some 92.4 percent had voted ‘yes’ on the new charter.
Reports on the ground differed from this assessment. Most analysts and diplomats believe that a large percent of people did not vote, with many staying home as a form of protest. According to one Asian diplomat who had been allowed to tour polling stations in Rangoon, “Few people seemed to be voting. There were no long queues of people as there were in the 1990 elections.” Such observations were echoed by a young New Zealander, who had been working as a photographer in the major town of Pyay, 80 km northwest of Rangoon. “I was only able to see three polling stations,” he said, “but the voter turnout was extremely low, perhaps less than a hundred people at each.” According to an exiled Burmese historian, informed observers have since suggested that less than 60 percent of registered voters had actually turned up at the booths.
Of those that did vote, many seem to have done so under duress. “In the three key cities of Lashio, Kengtung and Tachilek there was a very high turnout,” said Ei, a young Thai volunteer observing the vote. “The soldiers forced many to vote, and made them circle yes.” According to Khin Ohmar, a young Burmese opposition activist based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, additional electoral malfeasance included “stuffing of ballot boxes, forcing people to vote, and tampering with the ballot papers beforehand.” In Taungoo, a major city north of Rangoon, a Burmese dissident who was present during the voting reports that ballots papers were distributed to each house on the eve of the vote. These were then collected the following evening, making sure all were marked with yes votes.
Since civil servants were staffing the polling stations during the referendum, they, along with workers in large factories, were forced to vote early – up to a week before the actual poll, under the watchful gaze of soldiers. Many of these voters subsequently reported being given ballot papers already marked with a yes vote, or with papers that had the no option blacked out. When other civil servants turned up to vote, military officials told them that they had already cast their ballots.
The irony is that very few people had actually seen the draft constitution. In Rangoon, it sells for at least 1000 kyat – the equivalent of a dollar in a country where 80 percent of families live on less than two dollars a day. The cost is even higher elsewhere. The military government had continually promised that the voting process would be transparent, with voters able to place a cross against their choice – yes or no, as to whether to accept the draft constitution – and place it in a ballot box at a polling station. But international election monitors were banned, and foreign journalists not allowed in to report on the vote.
As with most engineered elections, fear and intimidation were widespread. “The police called on our family and told us we had to vote yes, or else we’d go to jail for three years,” a middle-aged mother in Rangoon said, on condition of anonymity, ten days before the referendum. A teacher who had worked in Rangoon for two decades said that she had been strongly advised to vote yes by her headmaster. Otherwise, she was told that she would be assigned to work in a poor school in a rural, remote area – or simply sacked.
Against the backdrop of the havoc caused by the cyclone, the whole situation was odd even by the junta’s standards. “This is one of the most bizarre acts ever by this military regime,” a western diplomat in Rangoon said. “People were angry when they still had to vote – and now they will be incredulous at both the ‘official’ result and the regime’s callous behaviour.” Indeed, Burmese anger had already started to boil by the day of the referendum. “We are angry that we still have to vote,” said a Burmese writer on polling day. “We don’t care about the constitution; all we are concerned about is surviving.”
Safeguarding military rule
In recent decades, faltering military regimes have been increasingly wont to seek to legitimise – and safeguard – their rule via constitutional methods. The Rangoon junta took 14 years to draw up the current draft constitution, which is set to replace the one the army effectively tore up in September 1988, when it seized power in a bloody coup. Intermittently over the past decade, the actual charter was drafted by a National Convention, composed of a thousand delegates handpicked by the military authorities. This body also rubber-stamped a series of proposals put forward by the regime.
Drafting a new constitution was the junta’s countermove to prevent the pro-democracy political parties from forming a civilian government after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in the last elections, in May 1990. The NLD was initially a part of the National Convention, but eventually boycotted it starting in November 1995, due to an atmosphere that it said precluded freedom of speech – particularly the fact that any criticism of the convention was punishable by seven years in jail. The Convention was then suspended for nearly 11 years, until it reconvened in May 2006 (without the NLD) and completed its task: drawing up a constitution that guaranteed the military’s permanent grasp on political power, which the junta considered a crucial step in what it had dubbed Burma’s “seven-stage roadmap to multi-party democracy”.
The new constitution not only enshrines the junta’s hold on power, but effectively excludes Suu Kyi from office. Under the charter, a quarter of seats in both houses of the new parliament would be guaranteed for the military, thereby making it impossible to alter the constitution without the junta’s backing. The president, the future head of state, will also have to be a member of the military. In addition, the army retains control of key ministries, including defence, economy and border affairs. As if all of this were not enough, the new constitution provides full impunity to the military, as well as shielding it from any oversight – important keys to understanding the junta’s true worries.
Many say that such anxieties can be sourced to one figure in particular, the junta’s boss, General Than Shwe. “The new constitution is Than Shwe’s exit strategy,” said independent Burmese political analyst Aung Naing Oo. “He knows he has to provide a facade of civilian rule, but retain most of the power. This constitution gives the Burmese perhaps five to ten percent freedom.” With Than Shwe firmly getting his way with the referendum ‘results’, the military is set to switch its uniform for civilian clothes. Elections are currently planned for 2010, and the regime now says that it will be preparing for a transition period from military rule to a supposedly civilian administration.
In the seven-step roadmap outlined by former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, the phase before the referendum was supposed to be a period of liberalisation and consolidation. This was when political prisoners were to be given a general amnesty, political parties allowed to resume normal activities (including reoccupy offices that are currently shut), and community organisations were to be strengthened. Instead, Than Shwe has conveniently skipped over this crucial step. “I’ve been following political transitions throughout the world, including Asia, for more than 30 years, and I have yet to see a successful transition to democracy without a previous phase of liberalism,” said Paulo Pinheiro, the former UN human-rights rapporteur to Burma. “But there isn’t the faintest sign of that yet in the case of Myanmar. What the Myanmar government calls a process of democratisation is in fact a process of consolidation of an authoritarian regime.”
If, on the other hand, the regime is going to make any move whatsoever towards a multi-party democracy in the next two years, things will become uncertain, and change could well produce unintended consequences for the top general. First and foremost, the government will have to implement this transitional phase or face a major dilemma after the referendum. As part of this process, the current ministers, many of whom have already been assigned positions in the new civilian administration, will have to resign from government if they are going to run in the forthcoming elections.
The junta will also have to seriously consider forming an interim government, and the political parties will have to be given a measure of freedom to function properly. “The junta will find itself in the same position as the Thai coup leaders did in September 2006,” said one Burmese academic. “They will have to install a neutral administration to oversee the so-called transition to multi-party democracy – and in today’s Burma, that will be a tall order. The most sensible thing for them to do would be to engage the NLD and offer a power-sharing arrangement – something that Than Shwe, at least, will never contemplate.”
Explosion up ahead
The cyclone’s devastating damage, and the shockingly inadequate response of the military regime to the plight of millions of survivors, could yet usher in winds of change. There are already tensions within the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, over the political direction being dictated by Than Shwe. Many younger officers have become disaffected by the rampant corruption that has occurred under his watch. Many have also been appalled by their leader’s cold-hearted disregard for the victims of Cyclone Nargis. On the first day of the storm, troops on alert were ready to be sent to the affected areas to help survivors and clear up damage. Instead, according to a senior military source in Burma, Than Shwe stopped them at the last minute, ordering that the troops be used instead for referendum security.
The dissenting ranks within the military fear that the army’s reputation has already been severely damaged. After all, the cyclone-related farce came on the heels of the brutal crackdown on the anti-inflation protests last September. That action was led by thousands of saffron-clad Buddhist monks, and the UN reports that more than 30 people were killed in the final count. In the aftermath, many officers suggested that the protests could have been put down without the use of brute military force. Such misgivings notwithstanding, however, there are no signs yet of a palace coup. While many officers may feel aggrieved, there is still no open discussion about taking matters into their own hands. “The climate of fear that pervades the whole country is also there in the military,” said a Thai military intelligence officer.
The events of May 2008, however, have dramatically ramped up the overall level of resentment within Burma. The country’s upper echelons may already suspect that their days are numbered. They know that with the horrific bungling of the cyclone’s aftermath, continued corruption on a massive scale, rising prices of food and other staples, and the brewing anger against the army – especially on the streets of Rangoon – there is a very real danger of explosive social unrest. For its part, though, the military seems to be still in denial. But there are some who believe that there is enough discontent within the military for a solution to the brewing crisis to come from that direction. “The army is the only institution that can bring genuine democracy to the country,” said one military man, emphasising: “The new generation of officers represent the real hope for the country.” Furthermore, he insists, this group would be open to political dialogue with Suu Kyi, as they see themselves as the real guardians of the country. If there is any lesson in Cyclone Nargis, it is that something certainly needs to change in order to save Burma from further devastation at the hands of General Than Shwe.
~ Larry Jagan is a freelance urnalist and Burma specialist, based in Bangkok.