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Asia

Myanmar refugees fear upcoming polls will maintain status quo

As Myanmar, also known as Burma, prepares for its first general election in 20 years, former political prisoners, rights activists and refugee leaders in Thailand doubt it will bring about political change.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has called for a boycott of the polls

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has called for a boycott of the polls

Mae Sot on Thailand's border is home to over 120,000 refugees from Myanmar who have fled conflict, as well as to former dissidents and political prisoners who have escaped torture.

For many of them, the November 7 elections in Myanmar offer little prospect of political improvement.

Activists say the elections, the first in 20 years, will end up with Myanmar’s military leaders maintaining their dominant role in the country’s political landscape.

The 2008 constitution already guarantees the military 25 percent of seats in parliament and pro-military parties are also heavily favoured.

The 2008 constitution guarantees the military 25 percent of parliament seats

The 2008 constitution guarantees the military 25 percent of parliament seats

The leading opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), has called for an election boycott. The NLD was deregistered because of its continued support for its imprisoned leader.

But the military has been warning people to go to the polls.

More arrests expected

Bo Kyi, the joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, fears the military will launch a fresh round of arrests of opposition members and NLD supporters.

"We should expect more arrests because of the 2008 constitution which says there is no freedom of assembly and no freedom of expression. All freedom and human rights are restricted. We cannot expect civil society to develop under the new constitution. There are no legal rights for political parties – only for those of the military regime," he says.

The junta has hinted that Aung San Suu Kyi might be released in mid-November

The junta has hinted that Aung San Suu Kyi might be released in mid-November

The international community, including the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, has called on the military government to allow for a free, fair and transparent election and the release of all political prisoners.

Possible release of Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar's military leaders have said that Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the past 20 years in custody, could be released from house arrest on November 13, the day her current period of detention expires.

Aung Myo Thein, a student leader from the 1988 political uprising who served a six-and-a-half year jail term for political activities, does not believe the authorities are acting in good faith.

"Aung San Suu Kyi will or may be released. She will then definitely make contact with her party and when she meets her colleagues, the new elected government will say she is in contact with an 'illegal organization' and she will be arrested again – this is our opinion."

Ethnic minorities fear attacks

Not only are dissidents and opposition politicians worried about the upcoming elections in Myanmar. Ethnic communities along the border with Thailand fear that army will launch attacks on ethnic armies that have refused to join the border guard.

The Karen, the Kachin, the United Wa State Army and the Shan State Army - South are gearing up for possible clashes.

Myanmar's ethnic minorities fear the army will launch campaigns against them

Myanmar's ethnic minorities fear the army will launch campaigns against them

Reverend Robert Htway, a Karen Baptist minister, fears that as many as six thousand internally displaced people may be forced to flee to Thailand for temporary safety. "We are worried about the military situation – all the people are worried," he says.

Citing security concerns, Myanmar has cancelled voting in over 3,400 villages in the border regions, disenfranchising over 1.5 million people.

Author: Ron Corben (Mae Sot)
Editor: Anne Thomas

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