Editorial: Charade in Myanmar

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28 September 2003

Published — Sunday 28 September 2003

Last Update 28 September 2003 3:00 am

A month ago Myanmar’s military leaders announced that they were drawing up a new constitution which would lead to free and fair elections. Few people believed them. Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was still in prison, reportedly dangerously ill; senior members of her National League for Democracy were detained and the party’s supporters scattered by government-backed mobs. Now Suu Kyi has left the hospital where she underwent an operation and has returned home where she is once again under house arrest. Some diplomats are venturing to hope that at long last, the military junta which runs Myanmar is facing reality.

Such a judgment is unfortunately woefully premature. Myanmar has been here before — twice. Since the National League for Democracy won a general election in 1990 and the military refused to accept the result, Suu Kyi has had to endure two long periods of house arrest while her party has been proscribed. It has been an article of faith with Suu Kyi that the opposition to the military government should at all times be peaceful. Such has been the esteem and authority enjoyed by the Nobel laureate that so far her supporters have heeded her advice.

However as the prospect of free elections is repeatedly dangled tantalizingly before the Burmese and then withdrawn by a cynical military government, the patience of the ordinary Burmese citizen, who is not part of the government machine, must be coming to an end. Going by its past record, there is no reason to believe that the government can be trusted to stick to its promise of constitutional reform and free elections. Besides which, there is already a 13-year-old election result still waiting to be implemented. And what is going to be the point of changing the constitution, if it rigs affairs so that the military will be protected from paying for what they have done and worse, be given an unacceptable role in the future running of Myanmar?

The most reasonable analysis of the latest developments in Myanmar is that the military junta is playing for time. They hope that the reward for their promises will be a slackening, or even lifting, of economic sanctions imposed by the international community. They will then be able to extend their rule. Indeed, they may be hoping that this further dashing of their hopes will provoke Burmese civilians into civil unrest. This they will use to justify further repression with the excuse that they are protecting the country from falling into anarchy.

The rest of the world should not let the Burmese generals get away with this. This “jam tomorrow” charade which has been so painful and so wretched for the Burmese people has gone on long enough.

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