Contact: Roland Watson, firstname.lastname@example.org
FREEDOM FOR BURMA: IS THIS IT?
May 8, 2008
Please forward widely.
The first phase of the new popular uprising in Burma took place last August and September. In response to the SPDC's energy price increases, the 88 Generation Students, and then the Buddhist monks and the general public, took to the streets. People demonstrated at dozens of locations around the country, with 100,000 or more turning out in Rangoon, Sittwe and Mogok.
This was not sufficient to bring down the regime. We need millions of people to rise up. Last year, many people were not politicized enough to overcome their fear. Also, and very importantly, the nations of the International Community, and the United Nations, did nothing material to help.
The second phase of the uprising is now beginning, with the opposition to the constitutional referendum. It is telling that the freedom movement even needs such an event. One would think that the conditions inside Burma are bad enough that there would be an on-going and escalating revolution. In any case, the referendum has provided the opportunity to instigate a country-wide Vote No campaign, which is continuing the process of politicizing the public.
The context for the referendum has completely changed in the last week, due to the catastrophe of Cyclone Nargis. The SPDC has announced that the poll date will be postponed from May 10th to May 24th for 47 townships. It is clear, though, that the only focus should be on providing assistance and that the vote should be abandoned. That the SPDC is intent on conducting the referendum, under such tragic circumstances, is yet more evidence of its complete disregard for the Burmese people.
The junta failed to warn the people of the impending storm, and in its aftermath it has been denying or delaying the distribution of needed disaster response supplies. The second, and many people in the Irrawaddy delta are dying every day because of it right now, reflects the generals' desire to hold on to the status quo. The SPDC's plan for the referendum was to restrict the movement of international agency personnel, to block observation of the poll. It is now hesitant to reverse this restriction, to allow the delivery of aid.
This behavior is certain to create even greater popular resentment. If problems do develop during the vote, they will be much more difficult for the generals to contain.
The referendum is the latest step in Than Shwe's imperial plan to assure that he, his family, and his military successors, are never removed from power. It is such a slap in the face of ordinary Burmese, to their dream of freedom, that it is perfectly suited to serve as the trigger for renewed unrest.
One wonders why he is even bothering to hold it, given this risk. The SPDC cannot win, at least not honestly. It must reflect pressure from China, or else the sheer bloody-mindedness of a tyrant.
The scenarios for the outcome are as follows:
- The vote is free enough that it clearly fails. Than Shwe either does not announce this result, which scenario just occurred with the presidential election in Zimbabwe; or he ignores it, in a similar manner to Burma's 1990 election; or he lies and says that it has passed.
- The referendum actually passes, but only because opponents are denied the vote, or their votes are changed, or because they are coerced to vote yes. Given the widespread efforts that are already underway - including extending the vote to Chinese immigrants - it is clear that this is the junta's objective: to steal the vote township by township and in as many different ways as it can devise.
The protest possibilities include at the actual polling stations, and once Than Shwe announces his new coup - that the referendum has passed. The real opportunity with this event is that the vote is widely distributed. The SPDC and USDA cannot ensure overwhelming security at every polling place, particularly given the number of people who are likely to show up. (Burma News International just announced the results of a survey in which 83% of the respondents said that they planned to vote.) Junta forces will be greatly outnumbered at many locations. (This is why some ceasefire groups are being asked to participate.)
The NCUB's estimate is that there are approximately 4,000 polling locations, and that the junta can control security at perhaps 60% of them.
When it becomes clear that the vote is being stolen, such as through the denial of secret balloting, spontaneous outbursts are likely, particularly at the locations with a smaller security presence. Such localized outbursts in turn can spread like fire when Than Shwe steals the national outcome
We need to remember the statement from the 88 Generation Students: The referendum is "the junta's declaration of war." It is time for the people of Burma to fight back!
It is also important to consider the impact of staggering the vote over two dates. We can expect a number of incidents on the first date, May 10th. Resentment will then build for the following two weeks, such that a greater outburst is likely on May 24th.
An additional uncertainty is the impact of all of this on Burma's underground groups. They no doubt have action plans in place for the vote. The question is if they will stick to their plans, or try to do even more. The behavior of Burma's monastic community is also an unknown.
It would certainly help if the International Community would provide some genuine support. (I don't mean humanitarian assistance for the cyclone victims, but for freedom.) This isn't very probable. Last November, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that France was not seeking the end of the regime (nor the cessation of Total's operations). This sums up the stance of the countries of the world, not only junta supporters like China, Russia, India, Thailand and Singapore, but even the supposedly pro-freedom nations starting with the U.S. Because of the proximity to the Olympics, any renewed junta crackdowns will certainly be met with loud denunciations, but I wouldn't expect any real help (e.g., for the U.S. a shift of its Burma funding from the National Endowment for Democracy to the Department of Defense, or to reveal what the CIA knows about North Korea and the SPDC's nuclear and missile programs).
As has been noted, the junta is indifferent to the International Community. The reason for this is that the IC doesn't do anything of consequence to pressure it. In many cases the nations of the world are actively working to help Than Shwe! They are enemies of the people of Burma!
The Burmese have to win their own freedom, and the question is: Will Phase 2 of the popular uprising be enough? It definitely has the potential to be much more tumultuous than last year. However, even if it is not sufficient to bring about the junta's collapse, it will set the stage for Phase 3, in August, with the opening of the Olympics and the anniversary of 1988. Although it is impossible to predict how many phases ultimately will be required, it is clear that last summer, particularly the generals' attacks on the monks, was a turning point. There is no going back. More and more resistance groups around the country, named and unnamed, above and underground, and peaceful and militant, are being formed. (It was extremely significant that in April the Yetagun pipeline, a major SPDC cash source, was shut down temporarily due to "ruptures.") More and more individuals are acting on their courage and leading the way. The dam of SPDC control itself has ruptured. The people of the country have begun to move, and they will never stop pushing, demanding their rights, until they are free.
While it is true that the people of southern Burma need food and clean water, it all starts with freedom. Were Burma free, and able to address its appalling poverty, the tragedy of the cyclone would have been much less severe. The suffering in Burma has reached unspeakable levels. It is intolerable. We have to get rid of the regime: Now!