By:-Martin Regg Cohn
Don’t feel bad if you haven’t noticed that Burma is holding its first elections in two decades this Sunday. It isn’t, really. You can’t have a free vote when the country’s most popular politician can’t cast a ballot. Or leave home.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize after losing her freedom, has spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest in Rangoon. Another 2,200 political prisoners are sitting out the election in prison. And Burma’s 50 million people remain captives in their own country.
The generals have governed this Southeast Asian nation since the 1960s with an amalgam of astrology and avarice. Now they are trading in their uniforms for suits in order to dress up military rule with a civilian face.
Cabinet ministers have resigned from the army, transforming themselves into putative democrats — backed by the official propaganda machine and bankrolled by the state apparatus. But the army is leaving nothing to chance and the vagaries of vote-rigging, reserving 25 per cent of the seats in parliament for itself.
The political opposition has been eviscerated. Convicted political leaders such as Suu Kyi are banned from the ballot. Political parties that ignore the elections must be disbanded.
With this double-barrelled gun to her head, Suu Kyi called for a nationwide boycott rather than lend legitimacy to a moral farce. The government countered with a typically imperious warning over the weekend: If people fail to vote in these rigged elections, the military will remain in power until further notice.
It’s a Burmese form of double jeopardy: People can vote for continued military rule; if not, the military will continue to rule.
The army is politically gun shy because of what happened the last time it allowed a free ballot, when Suu Kyi’s party won 82 per cent of the vote. The military nullified the vote, and renamed the country — Myanmar.
By boycotting this week’s elections, Suu Kyi knew she was signing a death warrant for her own party. A few months ago, about 100 political activists gathered in the dilapidated headquarters of her National League for Democracy to collect their files as the secret police looked on.
That’s where I met her about eight years ago, during a brief respite from her house arrest. She was 56 then, looking pale but serene. In her crammed office, surrounded by stacks of yellowing files and faded photographs, she spoke rapidly and defiantly, as if she knew time was short.
“Our people are very resilient — they’ve put up with this for 14 years,” she told me then.
At the time, the army had let her out as a confidence-building measure, hoping she would bend on her defence of democracy. State propaganda had branded her a whore and a witch, a maggot and an ogress. Unsurprisingly, negotiations soon collapsed and Suu Kyi’s house arrest resumed.
It has been 19 years since the world celebrated her Nobel Prize. During that time, fellow Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela won election in South Africa thanks to the international sanctions that strangled his country’s apartheid economy. Why not Burma? Canada has belatedly joined other Western nations in imposing sanctions, banning exports and financial services. But Burma’s rulers remain impervious to Western pressure, regularly snubbing appeals from UN. The reality is that economic pressure won’t work on a country that is so interconnected to China politically, military and geographically.
Now, pressure is mounting from Western countries to launch an international human rights and war crimes commission to investigate the military’s misdeeds. It is an idea worth pursuing. But it won’t change the equation on the ground in Burma, any more than diplomatic pressure will ease the situation in nearby Tibet, the birthplace of another Nobel laureate, the Dalai Lama. China won’t budge on Burma any more than it will on Tibet.
And so Suu Kyi, 65, continues to wait, and watch, from house arrest; and the Dalai Lama, 75, continues to wait, and watch, from his residence in exile: Two Nobel laureates whose fates, like those of their people, depend on Beijing