A 'No' Vote Means 'Let's Have a Dialogue'
covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, June 16, 2024


A 'No' Vote Means 'Let's Have a Dialogue'



Kyaw Zwa Moe
THE word “No” has become increasingly popular in Burma since February 9, the day the ruling generals announced the constitutional referendum would be held on May 10.

If the majority of the Burmese people cast a “No” vote—as expected—it doesn’t really mean “no” in political terms: it means “let’s have a dialogue” to resolve the country’s decades-long political impasse.

About 30 million enfranchised citizens—out of an estimated 55 million population—are called on to vote on the draft constitution, clearly a flawed document written by the junta’s handpicked delegates during a 14-year process.

In the past two decades, the regime itself has always responded with a “no” to the people’s dreams of living in a truly democratic country as an accepted member of the international community. The people are now in a position on May 10 to respond with a “no” to the military regime.

Strategically, a “No” vote opens at least a possibility for positive change. Maybe—just maybe—if the people’s vote of “No” is accepted, a real dialogue between the military, opposition leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi might occur. A “No” vote will also give more legitimacy to calls by the international community for an inclusive dialogue, hopefully followed up by more concrete pressure.

On the other hand, after the referendum, the junta—as many observers predict—could manipulate the vote count, claim victory, and simply ignore cries of foul play and the protests of opposition groups and the international community.

Regardless of the actual outcome—a victory for the opposition or a rigged “Yes” victory for the junta—the country will enter a dangerous period in which anything could happen. Based on my experience with the junta, I believe we are about to witness more civil strife and bloodshed.

Politically, economically and socially, the once proud Burmese people have been beaten down by the 46-year rule of the military. People in the cities are subjected to constant intimidation by the military government’s intelligence units. Special security police and goon squads monitor daily life. People in ethnic states along the borders have endured decades of war and countless villages have been uprooted.     

In 1988, when the military regime staged a bloody coup, thousands of citizens, including monks and students, were gunned down by the junta’s troops. The majority of the people’s representatives who were elected in the 1990 general election were imprisoned, and the democratic vote was thrown out by the generals.

Recent images from the 2007 civil uprising are still fresh in the world’s memory, showing the military’s determination to hold on to power at all costs. About 1,800 political prisoners currently languish in prisons across the country. It is the tip of the iceberg of the generals’ gross human rights violations.

The flaws of the junta’s draft constitution are legion. It guarantees the military key leadership positions in the government. The constitution says the president would be the head of the state, but the real power would lie with the military commander in chief, instead of being derived from citizens in line with democratic principles.  

The commander in chief is given the power to appoint 25 percent of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament from among military officials; the offices of president and two vice presidents are controlled by the commander in chief; the commander in chief is granted a political position on the same level as a vice president; and the commander in chief is given authority to declare a “state of emergency” at any time and assume all legislative, executive and judicial powers. 

A special clause in the constitution was inserted to deny Suu Kyi, the nation’s long-suffering democracy icon, the right to seek public office. It bars anyone from contesting an election if they receive the benefits of citizenship from another country or are spouses of foreigners. Suu Kyi was married to a British citizen.

“If the draft constitution isn’t approved, the people of Burma will have to struggle for some decades. But if it is approved, the people will have to suffer for many generations,” said Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the National League for Democracy, which Suu Kyi heads.

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