Burma's long walk to freedom not over yet

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After spending 15 of the past 20 years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi has finally been released.



Photo: Burma Democratic Concern

This does not herald a major breakthrough for the cause of true democracy in Burma, as has been claimed, and is instead a carefully calculated move on the part of the junta to distract the international community from a sham election designed to rubber stamp the continuation of military rule.

This is not the first time that Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest amid such international enthusiasm. In the face of a junta-controlled judiciary and laws that criminalise basic civil and political rights, political prisoners will continue to face the threat of rearrest. Each time she has been released previously, the military has found spurious grounds to detain her once again - most notably in 2003, when members of a civilian front organisation for the junta, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, attacked Suu Kyi's convoy in Depayin. Seventy members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were killed and over 100 arrested. The junta announced that the NLD had incited a riot between the two groups and placed Suu Kyi back under house arrest.

In her first press conference after being released, Suu Kyi repeated the call she has made since 1988 - an appeal to General Than Shwe to meet with her to discuss national reconciliation. She has also pledged to meet with the Burmese people to set up a 21st century version of the 1947 Panglong Conference that her father, Aung San, organised to achieve unity among the various ethnic parties and politicians in their fight against British imperialism.

Other opposition groups are keen for her to help investigate the processes of the election. There is little point to this, however, as the body that would investigate any irregularities is the Union Election Commission (UEC), which has already categorically proved it does not concern itself with the actions of the junta's party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), whether fraudulent or not. In a speech earlier this year deputy minister Aung Myo Min of the Ministry of Education said that the USDP would stage a coup if they did not win the election. This was a plain insult to the credibility of the supposedly democratic process, yet the UEC did nothing.

Additionally, the UEC decided not to postpone the election in Arakan state, where Cyclone Giri struck on 22 October, killing 170 people and leaving 170,000 more homeless. According to Burma's 2008 constitution, it is the responsibility of the UEC to postpone elections where a free and fair election could not be held "due to natural disaster or local security situations". Presumably it was local security situations that prevented 3,400 villages along Burma's eastern border with Thailand from voting, and not the fact that the junta-appointed UEC was concerned that ethnic minority parties would do well.

The UEC also faces allegations of vote rigging. No serial numbers were printed on ballot papers, so nobody knows exactly how many the UEC printed, meaning that officials were free to add as many fake votes to the ballot box as they chose.

The USDP has claimed victory, so 90 days after the election a new parliament will convene with Than Shwe lining up a new generation of hard-line ministers for key positions. The refurbished military machine will crush the few independent voices that have been granted token seats and so prospects for improvement are minimal both nationally and locally. At local level, ethnic parties with representation will undoubtedly use every opportunity to improve the lot of their people. But national legislation will trump whatever local decisions are made, meaning the government will be able to veto anything it regards as likely to promote or protect ethnic culture.

The NLD won the last general election in 1990 with over 80 percent of the vote, but the dictatorship refused to recognise the results and did not hand over power. Burma's rulers remain as uninterested in moving towards democracy now as they were then. Talks with the junta will achieve nothing - Than Shwe and his minions have used a sham election to solidify their grip on power. Next year we will see the release of yet more political prisoners, as those who were given short sentences for involvement in 2007's Saffron Revolution will be due for release. This is not compassion, or a sign of what will come in the future. Instead it is a cynical ploy to promote a new, more humane, side to the regime.

Large sections of the international community are somewhat delusional over recent developments in Burma, not just mistakenly hoping for an opening of political space but seemingly convinced that real change is coming. In reality, the election brings no positive developments and Suu Kyi's release will not be allowed to herald a new democratic dawn. Repression and suffering in Burma are getting worse, not better.


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