IT WOULD be unfair to the generals who control Burma to suggest that they have given their population no choice when it comes to a referendum next Saturday that would ensconce military rule behind a facade of democracy. People do have a choice: They can support the referendum, or they can go to jail. We know this, because brave people in Burma have worn "Vote No" T-shirts, and they have been carted off to prison. And we know that it is unacceptable to vote no, since hundreds of expatriate Burmese seeking to do so have been turned away from their embassy in Singapore.
All of which heightens the mystery of a recent comment from the office of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: "Asked about reports that voters in Myanmar [the junta's name for Burma] are being compelled to vote 'yes' in a referendum, the Spokeswoman said that the United Nations has no firsthand information on this, but reiterated its position that it is important for the Government of Myanmar to honor its commitment to a free and fair process." There's no mystery as to why the U.N. Security Council is impotent on this matter, as made evident by a useless statement the council approved on Friday; China and Russia would rather see the organization humiliated than have it support democracy in the Southeast Asian nation of 50 million people. That's not Mr. Ban's fault. But why should he bolster the illusion of a "free and fair" process?
Burma's regime allowed an election once before, in 1990. It lost, badly. The National League for Democracy won four of every five parliamentary seats; the regime promptly locked up the winners, and some remain in prison 18 years later. The head of the party, Aung San Suu Kyi, is under house arrest, as she has been for most of the past two decades. Last September the generals crushed a peaceful rebellion of Buddhist monks and unarmed citizens. This time they seem to be taking no chances.
Can anything be done? It's not easy, given the complicity of Burma's neighbors: China backs the generals, India is silent, Thailand worse than silent. The Bush administration has imposed banking sanctions on Burma's rulers and the companies they corruptly control, but the effectiveness is limited by Europe's reluctance to join in. A bill that would limit gem imports from Burma, again hitting the regime hardest, has been bottled up in Congress since last fall.
Still, amazingly, people inside Burma continue to protest and resist. Many of them may vote no, though the government no doubt will not disclose that result. The least those outside their giant prison can do is not pretend that Saturday's referendum has anything to do with democracy.