When the people of Myanmar vote in a referendum on May 10 on the country’s new constitution, they will be getting a bitter taste of the “discipline-flourishing democracy” the military has in store for them.
The referendum, Myanmar’s third in the past five decades, will theoretically decide the fate of the country’s new charter, a document that promises to cement the dominant role of the military in Myanmar politics following the next general election, planned in 2010.
In fact, the outcome of the referendum is a foregone conclusion, according to veteran Myanmar watchers.
“It’s going to be a ‘yes’ vote,” said Naing Aung Oo, a former Myanmar student activist who was forced to flee the country in the aftermath of the 1988 anti-military protests. “There are two reasons, one is intimidation and the other reason is the high probability of rigging the vote.”
Myanmar’s junta, the self-styled State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has left little up to free choice in the upcoming referendum.
The generals no doubt learned their lesson from the 1990 election, which, contrary to their expectations and planning, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide.
Despite their electoral victory, the NLD was blocked from power on the military’s argument that a new constitution was needed before civilian rule could be risked in Myanmar, a country suffering from a long history of ethnic-based insurgencies and separatist struggles.
The referendum on the constitution, which took 14 years to draft, was announced in February amid intensifying international pressure on Myanmar’s military regime to demonstrate its sincerity in moving toward some form of democratic system. This was in the aftermath of its latest crackdown on its own people in September last year, when the government brutally suppressed protests led by Buddhist monks.
In the same month, but less publicly, the regime also announced a new law that punishes anyone caught publicly criticizing the referendum with a three-year jail term and a fine.
The law has been readily enforced. In March and last month scores of activists have been detained for holding peaceful protests urging a “no” vote in the referendum, including five members of the NLD, who participated in a peaceful protest in Yangon, according to Human Rights Watch.
The New York-based rights group said that conditions for a free and fair referendum on May 10 do not exist because of widespread repression, media censorship, bans on political gatherings, the lack of an independent referendum commission and courts to supervise the vote, and a pervasive climate of fear.
But given the content of the constitution that is being voted on, the nature of this “discipline-flourishing” referendum should come as a surprise to nobody.
Two of the fundamental principles of the military-drafted constitution are to provide a “discipline-flourishing genuine multiparty democracy” and “for the Tatmadaw [military] to be able to participate in the national political leadership role.”
How the military will dominate Myanmar’s post-election politics is clearly spelled out.
Under the draft charter, 110 members of the 440-seat lower house, or People’s Parliament, and 56 members of the 224-seat upper house, or National Parliament, would be selected by the military.