In Burma, Elections Do Not Make Real Democracy
Much attention has been focused on Sen. James Webb's recent visit to my country and his meetings with Senior Gen. Than Shwe and incarcerated Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi. I understand Webb's desire to seek a meaningful dialogue with the Burmese ruling authorities. Unfortunately, his efforts have been damaging to our democracy movement and focus on the wrong issue -- the potential for an "election" that Webb wants us to consider participating in next year as part of a long-term political strategy. But the showcase election planned by the military regime makes a mockery of the freedom sought by our people and would make military dictatorship permanent.
In our last free election, the Burmese people rejected military rule in a landslide, awarding our National League for Democracy party more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament. Yet the military has refused to allow the NLD to form a government. In the 19 years since that election, Burmese democracy activists have faced imprisonment, intimidation, torture and death as they have peacefully voiced demands for justice, individual and ethnic rights, and a democratic form of government that is representative of all Burma's people.
While never ending our struggle for democracy, the NLD has continually sought to engage the regime and open a dialogue -- based on peace and mutual respect -- that could address Burma's critical political as well as social problems. Make no mistake -- these two issues are linked. Burma was once the rice bowl of Asia. Today, because of the regime's destructive economic policies and its use of oppression to maintain military rule, Burma is a shattered, poverty-stricken country.
The regime is seeking to place a veneer of legitimacy on itself through showcase "elections" and claiming that "disciplined democracy" will be instituted next year. Yet in May 2008, just days after a massive cyclone devastated Burma and killed more than 100,000 people, the regime used a farcical process to claim that 93 percent of voters chose to adopt a constitution that permanently enshrines military rule and prevents those with undefined "foreign ties" from holding public office -- catch-all provisions that would bar Suu Kyi and democracy activists from seeking office.
Some international observers view next year's planned elections as an opportunity. But under the circumstances imposed by the military's constitution, the election will be a sham. We will not sacrifice the democratic principles for which many millions of Burmese have marched, been arrested, been tortured and died to participate in a process that holds no hope whatsoever for bringing freedom to our country.
The demands of the NLD are reasonable. In April we issued another declaration to encourage engagement with the military that called for the release of all political prisoners, a full review of the constitution, reopening of all NLD offices and the right to freely organize. The regime's answer is the continued jailing of Suu Kyi and 2,000 other activists, massive military offensives against ethnic groups and the enforcement of rules to gag democracy.
How can the international community play a meaningful role? First, officials such as Webb should stop fear-mongering about China. His language about containing China, and working with Burma's regime to do so, is based on an outdated and unrealistic thesis. Suu Kyi rejected such notions by informing Webb that "we will not deal with anyone with fear and insecurity. We will deal with anyone, China, America, India, equally and friendly. As we can't choose our neighbors, we understand that we need to have a good relationship with China." Second, the NLD encourages other countries and international organizations to engage with Burma's military leaders to persuade them to engage with us and Burma's ethnic groups. The United States and many other nations have imposed sanctions on Burma. That is their decision and in keeping with their justified solidarity with the democratic values that we all hold so dear. If the regime genuinely engages with the NLD and ethnic representatives, releases political prisoners, ceases attacks against ethnic minorities and takes additional steps to build a true democratic state, these sanctions will be repealed at the right time.
In the meantime, let no one doubt our resolve. The NLD is a reflection of Burmese society. We will not be cowed or coerced into participating in a fatally flawed political process that robs the Burmese people of the freedom for which we struggle. We stand ready to engage, but we are more than willing to continue our struggle for the democratic values that so many have given their lives and their freedom to achieve.
U Win Tin is a member of the Central Executive Committee and a founder of Burma's National League for Democracy party. He was a political prisoner from 1989 to 2008.