Burma's Charade

Sunday, February 24, 2008

IF YOU haven't been paying close attention, you might think some recent announcements out of Burma denoted progress in this broken Southeast Asian state. After 14 years of promises, the junta says that it is finally introducing a constitution, with a referendum due in May. In 2010, it says, there will be full-fledged elections -- the first since those it annulled in 1990, when they were won by the democratic opposition.

Unfortunately, this supposed constitution, like the faux democracy it constructs, enshrines only the dictators who are holding the country hostage. Written by delegates cherry-picked by the government and lacking the input of the opposition party or many ethnic minorities, the constitution will reserve 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military. Through a well-crafted technicality, it also bars Aung San Suu Kyi -- opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner and house arrestee -- from holding office.

A short five months ago, the plight of the Burmese briefly held the world's sympathy and outrage. The military government had greeted peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations with violence and murder, raiding monasteries and imprisoning and killing Buddhist monks. Officials arrested an estimated 700 dissidents during and after the protests, bringing the country's total political prisoner population to about 1,900, many of whom are probably being tortured. In response the United Nations Security Council briefly stuck its neck out to say it "strongly" deplored Burma's brutality. But despite a subsequent promise to cooperate with the international community, the Burmese government has stonewalled the United Nations, denying an envoy a visa for months (he's supposed to finally visit in March); kept Aung San Suu Kyi under isolated house arrest; and, this month, extended the house arrest of her 80-year-old deputy leader, Tin Oo, for another year.

If the constitutional referendum goes through as planned, it will help the government falsely legitimize these consistently repressive policies. Through targeted banking sanctions -- which the United States has ordered but which the European Union, China and other countries have so far been too timid or self-interested to pursue -- the international community should prove it sees through the charade and force Burma into true democratic reform.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company