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An Offensive Election Strategy


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The fighting that broke out on August 27 between the Burmese regime’s army and the Kokang militia clearly signals the fragility of the ceasefire agreements that have been in place in Burma’s border regions for the past two decades. It also raises concerns of a return to a full-scale civil war unless the regime seriously works together with the ethnic armies, compromising its position as necessary in order to achieve an inclusive political process.

There is an undercurrent of tension flowing between the ceasefire organizations and the regime due to the flawed writing and approval process of the 2008 constitution. The regime’s desire to transform the ceasefire armies into border security guards, thus bringing them directly under the control of the national army, will almost certainly further these tensions and lead to more fighting.

The return to armed conflict also brings into question the credibility of the regime’s 2010 elections. It proves once again that the unilateral implementation of the 2010 elections as part of the regime’s seven-step roadmap cannot be regarded as a viable political solution paving the way to peace and stability.

In fact, the junta’s insistence on holding elections based upon a military-backed and military-supporting constitution is inviting armed conflict and unrest on a large scale in the near future. The international community, including Asian neighbors, should not support the election, but must rather stand firm in calling for an inclusive political process that involves reconciliation with Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders.

The Kokang, Wa, Mon, Kachin, Shan and other ceasefire ethnic groups have positively cooperated with the regime’s seven-step roadmap. They participated in a national convention to lay down the basic principles to draft a national constitution. The ethnic leaders proposed the necessary principles for the protection of ethnic rights and for a federal constitution. They compromised, they modestly made recommendations, and they worked within the limited space provided by the regime’s national convention.

In May 2004, some major ceasefire groups submitted a letter to the chairman of the National Convention Commission suggesting that the basic principles of the constitution should be reviewed and revised and that inappropriate decrees such as 5/96, which outlaws discussions on constitutional affairs, be abolished. When the regime reconvened the National Convention in 2005 and 2006, major ceasefire organizations tried their best to correct the basic principles to make them more democratic and based on a federal system within a legal framework. However, they all had to face refusals from the regime time and time again.

This refusal to listen had serious consequences. The first was that the New Mon State Party (NMSP) downgraded the status of its delegation to the National Convention. The second was the decision of several major ceasefire organizations not to participate in the 2010 elections. Although some ethnic groups have not yet decided what their position will be, even those that are inclined to participate are constrained by the absence of election rules.

It is under these circumstances that the regime is trying to finalize its roadmap in order to strengthen its claims to legitimacy through the 2008 constitution and 2010 elections. As preparation, in April 2009 the regime started its integration plan, which involves the transformation of ceasefire armies into border security guards. This plan has increased tensions and heightened ceasefire groups’ worries about their future status. As expected, major ceasefire groups have declined the regime’s proposal of integration.

Since the rights that they have been struggling for are not guaranteed by the 2008 constitution, the ceasefire groups don’t dare give up their armies. They know that the limited autonomy that they have enjoyed since entering into ceasefire agreements with the junta have been due solely to the fact that they have maintained their armies. Some groups with smaller armies have already been forced to surrender. Protecting their organizations and their armed groups is their last line of defense. The Kokang were just the first to fight to retain their army and territory; others may follow.

Ignoring such political realities and the root cause of Burma’s ethnic conflicts, some advocates, including the International Crisis Group, a respected think tank, are recommending that the international community should press all stakeholders to participate in the forthcoming elections.

It is true that the 2008 constitution establishes a federal form of government with a bicameral legislature as well as 14 regional governments and assemblies, ostensibly operating under civilian rule. However, in my opinion, all those spaces and changes will be extremely fragile, with far too much depending on the military.

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