Burma’s new constitution Vote for the army or else
It was just a few months ago that the world was transfixed by Buddhist monks facing down the army in Burma’s cities, fleetingly raising the hopes of a long-suffering people that decades
of iron-fisted military rule might finally collapse. This week those same people are expected to endorse a new constitution dressed up by the army as a great leap towards democracy. In reality, it is little more than a means to perpetuate indefinitely the military’s often brutal and corrupt control, and to keep from power the popular opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, the only Burmese leader to have won a free election in recent times.
But just to ensure that the vote in coming Saturday’s referendum goes the right way, the hundreds of thousands of monks who caused all the trouble last September have been barred from voting, and opponents of 46 years of military rule say the army is using a mix of intimidation and patriotism to win support for a document that few Burmese have read or understand.
“People here are just like puppets and the generals hold the strings,” said Kyaw Min, an opposition activist who was jailed by the army for 14 years and badly tortured. “But we are also tied with iron chains, and this constitution is being waved over the top of our heads just like another steel rope ready to tie us more. What they are forcing us to vote “yes” for has been designed not for the people but for “them”, and to keep them in power for longer. It’s a bad farce.” The constitution has been 14 years in the making as part of the long march towards the promised land of “discipline flourishing democracy”. It was drafted by delegates handpicked by the military. None was a member of the opposition.
There were no public debates on its content, because the referendum law forbids public meetings and lectures on the new constitution, the distribution of pamphlets and papers about it, and the display of posters on the issue. Offenders face three years in prison. Presumably all this is to stop any discussion of the implications of a constitutional requirement that any contender for President must have what is described as a sound knowledge of military affairs.
The new constitution also requires that the army select a quarter of the members of parliament, and that the military has the power to remove a civilian government it deems to have jeopardised national security. There is a clause designed specifically for Suu Kyi, who won the annulled 1990 election and is under house arrest, that requires Burma’s President to have lived continuously in the country for at least 20 years at the time of the election, and that the President’s spouse and children should not hold foreign nationality. But few voters know this because the wording of the constitution was revealed to the public only two weeks ago, and only to those who could afford to buy a copy.
Instead, voters are reliant on the interpretation of the state-run press. Government newspapers, radio and television pump out propaganda in favour of a yes vote using famous actresses to smile and tick the appropriate box on the ballot. The New Light of Myanmar, a government mouthpiece more popularly known as the Dim Light, offers up a daily diet of propaganda that equates support for the referendum with “ardent patriotism” and “genuine independence” from “foreign manipulation”, and calls those who oppose the new constitution opposition “puppets” tied to colonial powers.
To ensure a vote in favour, the military has lumped Burma’s 400,000 monks in with the mentally ill and convicted criminals who are excluded from voting. Opposition groups say civil servants are being forced to vote ahead of the referendum in their ministries, often in circumstances where it is far from secret.
There is also a whispering campaign apparently generated by the military in which people are led to believe that voting against the new constitution will be regarded as “disturbing” the process of the elections and liable to three years in prison. There are reports that voters will be obliged to put their name and identity numbers on their ballot papers. Some villagers are being told by headmen that a vote in favour of the new constitution actually means an end to military rule.
Many Burmese are putting their faith in celestial predictions. The country has just celebrated the new year of 1370, according to the local Buddhist calendar, a year that is the harbinger of changes and important clashes. According to this belief, a god will descend with two parchments in hand — one of gold carrying the names of the brave and just, the other made of dog’s hide inscribed with the wicked and corrupt whom god will slay with a sword. Educated people dismiss such predictions, but they have a powerful place among large numbers of Burmese who see no other hope for change.
Faced with the prospect of perpetual, if eventually indirect, military rule, many Burmese embrace Suu Kyi’s philosophy in her dealings with the army: “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. — The Guardian