Burma's junta promises democracy, but most are wary

The government's surprise announcement to hold a constitutional referendum is being met with deep skepticism.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Burmese hope: While many Burmese want economic and political change, they don't believe the government's plan for a constitutional referendum will usher in democratic reform.
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    Dissent crushed: Monks marched in Yangon in September against the government. Afterward, scores were arrested.
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The elderly monk is nervous. He paces the room, leans over an old TV set and slips in a "Tom and Jerry" DVD, raising the volume to an uncomfortable pitch. He peers out one window and then the next, fidgeting. He sits down, gets up again. Finally, he talks. But after all that, there is not much to say.

The Burmese military junta's surprise announcement last week that it would hold a referendum on the still secret Constitution this May, setting the stage for elections in 2010, is being greeted – in a country long used to broken promises and tricky maneuvers – mainly with suspicion.

Many say they are not holding out hope for a government-led transition to democracy. But nor do they believe a new outpouring into the streets is imminent. "Change," says the elderly monk, speaking anonymously for security reasons, "will take a long time in coming."

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Dozens of interviews with monks and opposition members – both inside and outside Burma (Myanmar) – paint a picture of a nation suffering from a dire economic situation and at the tail end of its characteristic patience with the military government. But it's also a nation that feels it lacks both the means to rise up or a leader to guide a revolution.

The announcement marks the first time the government has set dates to carry out stages of its so-called road map to democracy. And the elections, if held, would be the first since 1990, when Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. But the results of that vote were ignored by the junta, and the occasion was used to scrap the old Constitution and place Ms. Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remains today – not a confidence inspiring precedent.

Meanwhile, the peaceful antigovernment marches in September, which began here, in Pakokku, a dusty town on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, and spread across the country, were effectively and brutally crushed by the military regime. At least 30 people were killed in those protests, according to United Nations estimates, and thousands were detained, including monks. Other monks were "de-robed" or chased away from monasteries back to their villages. In Pakokku, about a quarter of the monks have yet to return.

Since September, according to Amnesty International, arrests have continued, and the country's almost 2,000 political prisoners remain unreachable – even by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Its activities in Burma were curtailed after the organization complained last year of the practice of using detainees as forced labor for the military.

A government ruse?

"We were so excited in September. We thought we were winning. People were clapping on the sides of the road and giving us water. We felt we would be free," says Zaw Maung Oo, a young activist who marched in Rangoon. "But we failed."

The new government announcement, he says, is a ruse. "We all think this is just a fake-out, to reduce international pressure and try and reduce our anger," he says. He worries the military will use the time to see who comes out to object to their new Constitution – and crack down on them. The elections, he says, will either never take place or will be a sham. A draft of the Constitution guidelines, released last year, shows it will codify the military's role as the preeminent power in the country.

Mr. Maung Oo is not alone in his skepticism. While Singapore, which holds the chairmanship of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), welcomed the junta's announcement, saying it hoped it would result in "peaceful national reconciliation," others were less sanguine.

The 88 Generation Students, a coalition of leading Burmese democracy activists, branded the referendum a "declaration of war" against the people and warned the ruling junta could unleash a new wave of violence to ensure victory in a constitutional referendum. While the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an exile group, called the regime "a mad man surrounded by fire" that is "plagued by economic woes, increasing international pressure, and widening public discontent at home," and so simply decided to convene a national referendum to divert attention.

Suu Kyi, who lives locked in her Rangoon home almost incommunicado with the outside world, was not able to make any comment herself. But her NLD party was not enthused, charging the announcement with being "vague, incomplete and strange."

September's dissent

While no one interviewed expects the regime to voluntarily change itself, there's also little faith in a repetition of the September events anytime soon. "Frankly speaking, the September uprisings happened with no real plan, thanks to a blunder of the junta," says U Han Than, an NLD spokesman, referring to the huge price hike in fuel prices that precipitated the street protests.

"But the generals proved again that they are very brutal and suppressive and that we are not strong enough to fight them. The people now know better than ever how determined the generals are to squash any expression of dissent," he says. "So they will not explode without real incitement."

"We are ready for compromise," insists Mr. Han Than. "We are not at war with the government. All we want is to express our opinion – but even that we are not allowed." Under international pressure, the junta recently agreed to send an envoy to hold talks with Suu Kyi, but these have been going nowhere. Last month she sent word to her party that no progress has been made.

And so, reluctantly, most Burmese are left with faith in the long term. "We have no faith in these passing pronouncements," says the head of a monastery in the ancient town of Sagaing, who spoke anonymously for security reasons. "In any case, if we got democracy today we would lose it the next day because we would not know what to do with it.... We have been 'de-educated.' "

Although Burma used to be famous in Southeast Asia for its quality education, today the situation is abysmal as half of its budget goes to the 400,000-strong military and less than 1 percent to education. According to the UN, 50 percent of children here do not finish primary school.

"We need to educate our next leaders and we need to educate the people to become critical thinkers so we can define what we want here," says the Sagaing monk. "Our strength will come from the confidence of being educated. That is when we will manage to turn to democracy. And for that we have years, maybe 10 to 20 to go."

Back in Pakokku, on the banks of the river, near the hawkers selling bags made out of watermelon seeds, an old lady sits beside a cage of sparrows. For 400 kyat, (about 30 cents) you can set a sparrow free, which, according to Buddhism, will bring you merit. She has an owl in a cage, too – freeing it will be an honor costing 1,000 kyat. But she has had no customers lately. "No freedom today," she says, but smiling, as is the Burmese way.

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