Resistance to vote on constitution

This is the declaration of war by the military regime against the people of Burma,” says Nilar Thein in a statement released Monday. They are strong words from a woman on the run and forced into hiding for over five months in the military-ruled country.

“We are ready to stand up to intimidation. We are ready to confront the Burmese military junta and its violence and brutality,” continues the statement by the 35-year-old pro-democracy activist. It was also signed by two others who, like Nilar, are taking refuge in a safe house in Rangoon to avoid arrest by the junta.

It is a statement that carries significant political weight in a nation that has been under the grip of successive military dictatorships for over 45 years. For the trio who issued it belong to the ‘88 Generation,’ a highly respected group of former university student leaders who led a pro-democracy uprising that was brutally crushed by the military in August 1988.

The ominous tone in the statement was the strongest reaction among Burmese pro-democracy groups and opposition parties to a sudden announcement over the weekend by the junta that it plans to conduct a referendum in May to approve a new constitution. “The upcoming constitutional referendum will be a major battle field between the military regime, which wants to rule the country forever, and the people of Burma, who want to be free from military rule,” warned the two-page statement by the ‘88 Generation Students’. “We urge the people of Burma to reject the military junta’s sponsored constitution in the upcoming referendum.”

The junta’s quest to introduce the country’s third constitution is rooted in an effort to marginalise the pro-democracy groups and to perpetuate the power of the military. The process began in 1993, when the junta set up a national convention to draft the constitution. That came after the generals refused to recognise the results of a 1990 parliamentary election, where the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won 81 percent of the 485 seats up for grabs.

This 14-year exercise to draft the charter, which ended last year, was marked by the harsh restrictions imposed on the over 1,000 members to the convention who had been hand-picked by the junta. Notorious among them was law No 5/96, which prohibited participants from criticising the draft of the charter that had been written by the SPDC.

The NLD, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, had refused to participate under such threatening conditions. The prospect of Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years, emerging as the democratically elected leader of the country during the proposed 2010 election is also remote. For the junta, fearing her universal popularity has a clause in the constitution that forbids a Burmese married to a foreigner from running for the post of president.

International support for such an oppressive political exercise will inflame feelings inside Burma, says Debbie Stothard of ALTSEAN, a regional human rights lobby campaigning for freedom in Burma. “If the international community sits back and welcomes this referendum without knowing how the constitution was drafted and the prevailing restrictions, it will reinforce the feeling among the Burmese that they have been let down again.” — IPS