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Referendum in Burma: why now?

Maureen Aung-Thwin [Director, Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative of the Open Society Institute]: "The sudden announcement by the Burmese military regime that it would soon hold a national referendum, to be followed by elections in two years, is not a total surprise. The referendum scheduled for May is on a yet-to-be-written new constitution that has been drafted in secrecy since 1993, in a process controlled by the military. Parliamentary elections would take place in 2010, twenty years after the last time the Burmese people went to the polls and voted out the military government.

The Burmese military junta is a master at buying time. After fifteen years of choreographing a National Convention, attended by mostly non-elected, hand-picked participants who were confined to the premises and prohibited from open discussion of the issues, why did the regime suddenly set dates to wrap it all up? A likely reason is damage control after the universal condemnation of the regime's crackdown on peaceful monks and civilian demonstrators last September. Perhaps more important, by appearing to embrace political reform, the regime helps its major supporter, China, deflect potential negative attention before the beginning of the Beijing Olympics.

The current junta headed by Senior General Than Shwe has manipulated a constitutional process the regime hopes will eventually legitimize military rule in perpetuity. Reportedly trained in psychological warfare, General Than Shwe is betting that the international community, in particular the United Nations Security Council, the European Union and particularly the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—who are all suffering from various degrees of "Burma fatigue"-- might, however reluctantly, grasp at any façade of change.

Genuine and lasting change, however, will come to Burma not because of outside pressure, although that is important, but when the wishes of its own citizens are freely acknowledged. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained leader of the main opposition party the National League for Democracy, once told the Burmese public that: "A State Constitution is a contract between the people and the government of a nation. Only a constitution that is willingly accepted by the people will endure the test of time." [NLD press statement, Rangoon, November 22, 1995]

One hopes that the people of Burma can also endure the test of time to finally approve a document that genuinely reflects their wishes."

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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