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Anything To Keep Aung San Suu Kyi Out of Burma’s Electoral Process
Rene Wadlow*

The Myanmar military dictatorship currently speaks of “Myanmar’s Road to Democracy.” This is not unlike the earlier slogan of General Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party’s “Burmese Road to Socialism.” That Road led a relatively prosperous, rice-exporting country to one that is on the UN’s list of the 50 most underdeveloped countries and a net rice importer. The most recent sign post of “Myanmar’s Road to Democracy” was the 11 August court judgement of an additional 18 months of house arrest for the democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been under house arrest for 14 of the last 19 years after her political movement, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 1990 elections.

The 18 months is designed to keep Aung San Suu Kyi from playing any active role in the proposed 2010 national elections. She had already been barred from running for office by the new 2008 constitution which bars anyone married to a foreigner from running for office. Aung San Suu Kyi was married to the late Michael Aris, a British scholar specialized in the cultures of Burma and Tibet who died of cancer in March 1999. However, her presence in election meetings — were election meetings to be held — would have been a major force. In the 1990 elections, there were no real election meetings. A gathering of more than five people required a police permit — rarely given.

The Burmese military have held power in the country since 1958 and show no signs of yielding it to civilian political leaders. They have prevented discussion of the most burning political issues which have divided the Burmese since independence in 1947: the national minorities, the insurgencies, the balance of power between central and regional administrations, the nature of the state and the role of democracy.

The military leadership has been both corrupt and incompetent. They weakened administrative services, schools, health care and the state infrastructure despite a bloated public sector of underpaid and inefficient civil servants. Many educated Burmese left the country for jobs in Britain, Canada and Australia; other Burmese joined the merchant marine of other countries in order to be able to feed their families.

By 1988, economic failure, lack of social services, and an oppressive atmosphere preventing discussion led to student protests. University students have always been the leaders of reform movements, in part in memory of the 1936 student strike in Rangoon which was the most visible cry for independence. In March 1988, during the “seven days that shook Rangoon”, there was a remarkable series of non-violent protests, led by students, younger Buddhist monks, and young professionals. The demonstrations received a good deal of sympathy from the wider public whose economic conditions were worsening due to ever-rising prices.

The military hit back with large-scale arrests of students and shooting of demonstrators. The movement began to spread beyond Rangoon. Unrest continued, and on 8 August 1988, there was a general strike and massive street demonstrations in Rangoon. Tens of thousands demanded democracy, human rights and the resignation of the government. The army intensified its crackdown, and many student leaders left the country for Thailand or the border areas. The military, however, recognized the seriousness of the crisis. General Ne Win resigned and some of the military in his cabinet were also ‘allowed’ to resign.

A slightly modified group of military leaders retained power, but to indicate that a change had taken place, they called themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and dropped all mention of the “Burmese road to socialism”. Since there had been wide international criticism, especially at the UN, of the brutal crackdown upon students, the SLORC decided that there should be elections in order to confirm their legitimacy.

SLORC had hoped to continue the military monopoly of power following the holding of the promised elections in 1990. Their idea was to create a multitude of political parties built around personalities from each section of the country. In all, 93 parties with no previous legal existence were created for the election. The anticipated result would be a divided Parliament through which SLORC would continue in power by the building of fragile coalition governments. In order to facilitate this plan, the election procedure was weighted against the creation of a mass party. No election meetings of more than five people were allowed. Party publications were limited, no access to radio was given. Leaders of the potentially stronger political parties were put in jail or under house arrest.

Confounding the military’s plans, one party — the National League for Democracy with Aung San Suu Kyi as its secretary-general — won 392 of the 485 seats in Parliament. A set of ethnic parties, collectively called the Union Nationalities League for Democracy and allied to the NLD won 47 seats, while the political party most allied to the SLORC gained only 10 seats. The SLORC was so out of touch with popular sentiment that they were surprised by the results. Thus they had to invent reasons why the Parliament could not meet.

The reason hit upon was that with the change of government, the constitution was suspended and that the Parliament could not be called into session until a new constitution was written and ratified. Thus from 1991 to 2008, the government pretended to be in a constitution-drafting stage. 17 years is a long time to write a constitution, especially as there was no public discussion of what the constitution should contain.

Just as the 200-page constitution and commentary was to be ratified, a tropical cyclone — Nargris — struck the heavily populated Irrawaddy Delta — home for a quarter of the country’s population of 57 million. However, the ratification vote went ahead on 10 May and on 24 May in the storm-ravaged areas. Since no effort had been made to explain the meaning of the constitutional provisions, the government in many areas provided ballots with “yes” already marked in.

Despite the fact that there is now a constitution, it is not those elected in 1990 who will be called to Parliament. Rather there are to be new elections in 2010 which the military will better prepare this time. With foresight, the constitution provides that a quarter of the seats are reserved for the military.

The other safeguard needed was to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from being present at election meetings. Thus her house arrest which was to end late in 2009 had to be renewed so that she could not leave her home. One of the provisions of her current house arrest regulations is that she can not have a visitor without government permission. Thus, the government needed to find an “unauthorized visitor” so that there could be a new trial and a prolongation of the house arrest. How the government found its “unauthorized visitor” is not fully clear and would be funny in a film.

What seems most likely is that an American Mormon missionary, John W. Yettaw, 54, had already once swam across the lake which borders Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in order to leave with her a copy of the Book of Mormon, the chief text of the faith, and then left also swimming. He would have been contacted by intelligence agents of the Myanmar government on the Thai frontier with the news that Aung San Suu Kyi wanted to see him and that he could again reach her by swimming across the lake. Yattaw claims that the idea came to him in a vision. Both versions may be true. In any case, he swam across the lake. There was no real discussion of theology, but Yettaw, tired and with cramps from swimming was allowed to sleep one night in the house. As he started swimming away the next morning, he was picked up by the police which now had evidence of “unauthorized visitors.”

Yettaw was tried in the same Insein Prison as Aung San Suu Kyi and received a seven-year sentence — four with hard labor. He received three years for breaching security laws, three for immigration violations and one year for illegal swimming. Hopefully, there are enough Mormons with influence in the US government so that some sort of deal will be made, and he can continue his missionary activities in safer conditions.

How (and if) elections are carried out in 2010 will have to be followed closely.

* Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens

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