Just as Myanmar’s junta steps up its campaign to get voters to approve its draft constitution on a referendum later this month, Human Rights Watch has released a report saying it is a sham and should not receive domestic or international endorsement and the US has imposed new sanctions on the impoverished land. Meanwhile, the authorities have confirmed that the name of Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is on the official list of voters. But activists fear she will be forced to vote behind closed doors to prevent her from appearing in public.
Activists fear Myanmar's new constitution will further consolidate the military's powers
The referendum process is a sham, according to Human Rights Watch and other rights organisations both in and outside of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Speaking from Thailand, David Mathieson from Human Rights Watch named the chief problem with the draft constitution that the junta is pushing voters so aggressively to endorse on May 10: “It gives sweeping powers to the commander-in-chief of the army.”
“Basically, the armed forces can step in and take over control of the government on the flimsiest of excuses. These emergency powers of the military are very concerning, as is the fact that the president of the future so-called democratic Burma will have to have military experience or experience in military affairs.”
Pervasive climate of fear
In a report released on May 1, Human Rights Watch criticises widespread repression in Myanmar and claims the ruling junta has created a pervasive climate of fear in the run up to the referendum.
This view seems to be shared by US President George W Bush who, on the same day as the report’s release, issued a statement saying the upcoming vote would not be “free, fair or credible”.
He also announced the imposition of new sanctions on state-owned companies in Myanmar.
Sanctions need follow-up
However, the issue of sanctions is controversial. Experts have often questioned their effectiveness. Human Rights Watch is against blanket sanctions and says sanctions can only be an effective tool if they are well targeted, as well as constantly updated and adapted.
“We’re calling for targeted financial sanctions against the top leadership of the country and those people who directly benefit from military rule,” Mathieson told Deutsche Welle.
“Complete isolation of the country is not something we agree with. We believe in an increase in development assistance to the country and in humanitarian relief operations because the situation inside the country is really quite terrible.”
Mathieson added that the junta was getting nervous and that some of the sanctions imposed since September had had some effect, with generals moving money around different bank accounts and trying to find loopholes. This is why the “follow-up” was so important he insisted.
Nyo Ohn Myint from the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, agreed in an interview with Deutsche Welle that sanctions could only be effective if they were specific and constantly re-adapted.
Looking at real issue
But he added there were other ways the international community could apply pressure on the junta but it needed first “to look at the real issues, to what the real problem” was.
He said that although Myanmar wanted the “lip-service and moral support” it especially needed real political action.
The UN, he said, was a very important mechanism in international affairs but had “never brought about a transition from a totalitarian regime to democratic reforms” so a rethink in policy towards Myanmar was imperative.
Forced non-secret ballots
In the past week, there have been unconfirmed reports that the junta has forced hundreds of government workers to vote in non-secret ballots in favour of the constitution ahead of the referendum.
Activists warn the generals could use increasingly heavy-handed tactics to intimidate people -- especially in isolated, rural areas.
In the cities, however, the opposition’s “No” campaign, which is informing voters about the potential negative consequences of the constitution, is reportedly quite strong. Journalists and opposition politicians are monitoring the cities to prevent coercive tactics from being used and to ensure a free and fair election next week.
Flicker of hope
Nyo Ohn Myint from the National League for Democracy thinks now is the chance to bring change to Myanmar:
“I’m very optimistic: regardless of whether the regime announces that they have won the “Yes” vote with more than 51 percent or if they concede the referendum. Our job is to bring real hope to the people again. People need a change in the political system that also allows economic and social development.”
So despite the climate of oppression, there is hope on the part of activists that the junta’s referendum and constitution will be exposed as a sham and Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to take up her rightful position as democratically-elected leader of Myanmar.