(New York) - Burma’s referendum on a new constitution planned for May should be conducted in an atmosphere of freedom and respect for basic rights, and not as a hollow exercise in the military’s sham political reform process, Human Rights Watch said today.

For the referendum to have any credibility, the process of drafting a new constitution will need to allow for broad public participation, including by members of opposition political parties and ethnic minority groups. A full and free public debate will also be necessary. This entails freedom for the media to report and discuss the draft, as well as freedom of expression, association, and assembly for citizens to meet, debate, and criticize the draft. To be free and fair, the referendum must be administered by a neutral election commission.

“Genuine popular consultation on Burma’s constitution would be a step forward, but Burma is a dictatorship that lacks the safeguards needed to ensure a free and fair referendum,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless there is a fundamental change of course by the authorities, a referendum in this environment will have little credibility.”

Human Rights Watch said that the 14-year-long National Convention to draft a new constitution was a tightly controlled, repressive, and undemocratic process in which there is little debate and those who publicly criticized the process have wound up in prison.

Since the constitutional convention began in 1993, scores of opposition delegates have been arrested, imprisoned and in some cases tortured and subject to other forms of mistreatment in detention for questioning the legitimacy of the convention. Many more have been forced into exile. In 1995, the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), staged a walkout from the convention because of unfair operating procedures, which prohibited them from tabling alternative proposals and voicing disagreement with the process. They were later expelled from the convention.

In 2005, the leaders of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), representing one of Burma’s largest ethnic groups, who had attended the convention since it started, were all arrested on trumped-up charges of treason, and sentenced to prison terms of over 90 years each (for more on the National Convention, please see https://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2007/02/16/burma15348.htm).

Based on the latest version of the draft constitution, which was presented at the end of the national convention in September 2007, the government is aiming to codify the military’s role as the preeminent power in the country. That draft reserved 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military appointees, reserves power to the head of the military to intervene in national politics, and reserves key government ministries to serving military officers. The draft makes many basic freedoms conditional on the approval of the Burmese military.

Democracy activists have also expressed concern that revisions to the draft constitution are taking place in private with no public consultation. Many also fear that the draft constitution will be sprung on the public, voters will be threatened and pressured to vote in favor of the constitution, and the election results will be manipulated.

“The danger is that the government’s soft critics like China and India will say, ‘See, Burma is moving toward democracy; we should back off and give them a chance,’” said Adams. “But now is the time for these countries to increase pressure on Burma to ensure that the referendum is a genuine expression of popular will.”

Genuine reform would require the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to take concrete measures to improve human rights, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch called for the release of all political prisoners, an end to censorship, and freedom for political parties and civil society groups to meet and discuss politics.

The SPDC continues to detain and imprison more than 1,800 political prisoners, including:

  • Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD, who has been under house arrest on and off since 1990;
  • leaders of the ’88 Generation Students (leaders of the 1988 protest movement), such as Min Ko Naing; and,
  • political leaders such as Hkun Htun Oo of the SNLD, and U Win Tin, a journalist and member of the NLD, who at 79 is Burma’s oldest political prisoner.

Many political prisoners are reportedly gravely ill and receive only rudimentary health care. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been denied free access to conduct confidential prison visits since December 2005. Arrest and intimidation of political activists in Burma has continued since the brutal crackdown on monks and civilians last September.

Freedom of the press is sharply restricted in Burma, with the SPDC’s Press Scrutiny Board vetting all publications and tight restrictions on the internet and phone communications. Dissemination of constitutional matters is sharply controlled by the state-controlled media, and Burmese journalists are not permitted to write freely on political matters. The Law 5/96 of 1996 expressly forbids public criticism of the National Convention, and is punishable by long prison terms.

“The question is whether Burma’s military government is willing to change course by allowing public debate and transparent voting in this referendum,” Adams said. “In light of its massive crackdown on protests last year, there are no signs that the government believes in openness or debate.”

The last referendum the Burmese government conducted was in late 1973, endorsing a military-backed constitution and paving the way for a period of governance by the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP), a civilian front for military rule. The BSPP government ended in 1988 after massive street demonstrations throughout Burma calling for reform, with the army seizing power formally once again. The military government killed thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators calling for an end to military rule and the socialist system and a free political and economic system.

“Unless the generals’ backers in Beijing, Bangkok and New Delhi press them to respect basic rights, this referendum will have no meaning,” said Adams. “Burma’s military leaders appear to be using this referendum as a way of relieving international pressure on their dictatorship.”