(New York) - The Burmese military government should adopt expected calls from UN special advisor Ibrahim Gambari to allow an open and inclusive political process ahead of a planned constitutional referendum in May, Human Rights Watch said today. Gambari arrives in Burma on March 6, 2008.

On February 19, Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) announced that a referendum on a new constitution would be held in May 2008, with multiparty elections following in 2010. But, without input from the public and opposition parties, the process fails to be a real step toward democracy, despite the government’s claims.

“Gambari should tell the generals that marching a fearful population through a stage-managed referendum will not advance democracy or reconciliation in Burma,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “A referendum under these repressive conditions will only cement in place continued military rule.”

Since announcing the referendum, the government issued Law No.1/2008, which denies voting rights to members of religious orders, including monks and nuns. It also imposes a three-year prison sentence on anyone found “lecturing, distributing papers, using posters or disturbing the voting in any other manner in the polling booth or at the public or private place to destroy the referendum.”

Provisions in the draft constitution bar candidates from running for president if they have a foreign spouse or child (such as detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) and reserve a quarter of parliamentary seats for serving military officers.

Human Rights Watch called on Special Advisor Gambari to seek guarantees from the government to convene an independent election commission, compile a proper voter registration list, lift long-standing restrictions on media, permit freedoms of association, expression, and assembly in Burma, and revoke new regulations that criminalize legitimate debate about the referendum.

“Gambari should not confuse this sham constitutional process with progress,” said Adams. “Opposition parties risk being punished for simply discussing or sharing information about the proposed constitution.”
Human Rights Watch urged the UN special advisor to call on the SPDC to:

  • Release political opponents and more than 1,800 political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, leaders of the ‘88 Generation Students, and the leaders of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy arrested in 2005;
  • Account for all casualties and missing persons from last September’s crackdown on protests by Buddhist monks and democracy activists, including the whereabouts of missing monks and nuns;
  • Secure access to Burma for the incoming UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma; and
  • Permit opposition political parties to meet with the special envoy.

Following its brutal crackdown on protesters during August and September 2007, the SPDC promised Gambari to set out clear steps to reform, and to engage in dialogue with the domestic opposition and the international community.

On October 11, 2007, the UN Security Council urged the Burmese government “to create the necessary conditions for a genuine dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all concerned parties and ethnic groups, in order to achieve an inclusive national reconciliation with the direct support of the United Nations.” On November 14, the Security Council expressed its expectation that a “meaningful and timebound dialogue” would take place, and called for the release of political prisoners, accounting for missing persons, and humanitarian access to persons in need throughout the country.

When Gambari visited in November, his activities were closely controlled by the government and he was unable to visit opposition leaders without government supervision. Reforms have not occurred and arrests of political activists and journalists have continued in a climate of fear.

“If the Burmese generals continue their obstructive tactics during Gambari’s visit, the UN Security Council must react to such contempt for UN officials.” said Adams. “Burma’s backers in the international community, including China, Russia, and Thailand, must support Gambari in this effort.”