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In the News
Last Updated: 06/02/2004
Burma: Road Map Towards a Dictatorship Democracy
Yotam Ben Meir

On May 17 2004, a constitutional convention was held in Rangoon by the Burmese military Junta to draft a new constitution for the country. The convention is meant as a first step to what Burma's military says is an “eventual transformation to democracy”. However, Most of the delegates to the convention were hand-picked, and a code of ethics and discipline has been distributed to all those attending, advising them not to express disloyalty to the state or discuss topics outside the official agenda dictated by the army. Foreign diplomats and human rights organizations have dismissed the gathering as a sham in the absence of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, who chose to boycott due to government's insistence that the military maintain a leading role in any future government, and after the military has refused to free NLD’S leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for non-violent activism, and other party members, who have been detained for the past year. In Eastern Burma a humanitarian crisis the world has largely ignored takes place, where up to a million people of ethnic minorities have fled their homes, fearing rape and murder by military.

May 20th 2004 marks an anniversary for Burma s Black Friday, when just a year earlier Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters set out on a road tour of Burma. Everywhere she went, huge crowds gathered in testament to the passion she still generates among Burmese people. Almost 15 years of detention and house arrest have just strengthened her image as an icon for democracy and peaceful freedom struggle in Burma and all around the world. On the night of 20th May 2003, thousands of men armed with sticks, clubs and rocks attacked a convoy led by Suu Kyi and supporters from her National League for Democracy (NLD). As many as 70 people may have died in the violence, according to exiled opposition groups, who blame the attack on the ruling military junta. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was detained that night along with several party colleagues and was brought under house arrest once again. Many more have since been put under house arrest or taken into custody. (IndyMedia).

3 months later, on August 2003, a Constitutional Convention was declared by the Military Junta government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), who touted it as an important part of a seven-point "roadmap" for change. But even before the delegates walked into the conference hall on Monday May 17 this year, opposition groups and government critics were questioning whether the meeting would have any legitimacy. The National League for Democracy (NLD) announced it was boycotting the convention, due to government's insistence that the military maintain a leading role in any future government, and after the military has refused to free NLD S leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and other party members, who have been detained for the past year.

According to Aung Zaw, the editor of Thailand-based magazine Irrawaddy, the outlook for the country's democratic process now looks bleak. "Without the NLD, the convention lacks any form of credibility," he told BBC News Online. "It takes two to tango. If the government is not prepared to make any kind of positive gesture, there will be no progress."

The NLD said it had decided to boycott the talks for two main reasons - the continued detention under house arrest of two senior party figures, leader Aung San Suu Kyi and chairman Tin Oo, and the closure of its regional offices. The government accused the NLD of making "unreasonable demands", and said Aung San Suu Kyi and Tin Oo would remain detained "to ensure the peaceful development of the National Convention".

Nyo Ohn Myint, a senior NLD member in exile in Thailand, told BBC News Online: "We have been unfairly treated. We would love to talk with the government we are not saying we do not want talks. It just has to be appropriate, and first we need some political changes," he said.

Other parties and ethnic groups have also boycotted the convention, including the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and the Karen National Union (KNU).

Saw Sarky, the European representative for the KNU, said the NLD's decision would have a chain effect on other parties. "It's a huge blow to the ruling junta. The talks will now lack any sort of legitimacy," he said.

The international community also criticized the Burmese junta's failure to reach a compromise with the NLD, as well as the continued detention of opposition leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was said to be "dismayed" that the junta had opened the talks without the opposition. "The secretary general reiterates that, for the national convention to be credible, it must be all-inclusive and that all the delegates must be able to express their views without sanction," Mr Annan's spokesman said in a statement.

Despite criticism from all directions, Burma's rulers seem determined to continue unabashed with the National Convention. The junta is used to withstanding condemnation. When the NLD won national elections by a landslide in 1990, the military refused to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi, sparking international outrage. Since then, the pro-democracy leader has spent most of her time in some form of detention, despite a barrage of criticism from home and abroad - and even international sanctions.

When Burmese Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt announced plans for the convention in his "roadmap" in August 2003, optimists hoped it would enable the country to move towards democracy. But government critics now fear the situation is little changed from that in 1996, when a similar convention collapsed because the NLD walked out, accusing the junta of manipulating the political process. "It's just a repetition of the last time," said Dr Aung Kin, a London-based Burmese historian. "All the people attending the conference have to bow to the wishes of the military. You can tell the [ruling generals] don't want change," he said. (BBC)


Ethical codes

The convention is a road map to mockery said critics, in response to Burma's generals declaration that the convention and the new constitution are a 'road map to democracy'. Burma's military government has laid out strict rules of conduct for delegates attending its constitutional convention in Rangoon. A code of ethics and discipline has been distributed to all those attending the convention, advising them not to express disloyalty to the state or discuss topics outside the official agenda (Epochtimes). The Delegates were told not to walk out or make anti-national remarks. The regulations also cover personal conduct and even hygiene and the delegates were advised to put on suitable clothes, to bathe at reasonable times, avoid junk food and live in a self-contained camp where they can enjoy karaoke, movies and golf (dassk). The delegates are said to represent the country's political parties, ethnic groups, peasants, workers, intellectuals and government, however most of the delegates to the convention were hand-picked by the regime, while the NLD and other opposition groups stayed away. (Washingtontimes)

According to diplomats and Burmese dissidents, Burma's un-elected prime minister, Gen Khin Nyunt, along with the country's head of state, Gen Than Shwe, are manipulating collaborators, submissive political groups and others into drafting a constitution, which will allow the military to enjoy immunity from severe human rights violations. (Democratic Voice of Burma)

The regime's future role under the new constitution is no secret. One of the six "objectives" of the constitutional convention is "for the [military] to be able to participate in the national political leadership role of the state," (Washingtontimes)

While the convention was taking place without NLD attendance, The 2004 Korean Kwangju Human Rights Award was awarded to Burmese Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on 18 May during a ceremony held at the South Korean town of Kwangju in recognition of her unflinching efforts for the emergence of democracy in Burma. (Democratic Voice of Burma)


44 Years of dictatorship

Burma, the biggest country in mainland Southeast Asia, has had two other constitutions - one written in 1974 and one from 1947, when the country attained independence from Britain. However, "There is no constitution in operation in Burma currently," said Khin Maung Win, a member of the executive committee of the pro-democracy Bangkok-based Burma Lawyers' Council. "Abolition of the constitution by the military regime in 1988 was [...] to pave the way for the army to take over state power. (Washingtontimes)

Burma has been under the dictatorship of a military regime for many years and literally thousands of Burmese refugees are living in Thailand in refugee border camps. Human rights watchdog Amnesty International accused Burma's military this week of severe rights abuses against the nation's Muslim minority, including eviction from ancestral land and forced labor. The Muslims, who mostly live in northwest Burma and are called Rohingyas, are often forced to work on roads and at military camps, Amnesty said. "They are also subjected to forced eviction and house destruction, land confiscation and various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation including financial restrictions on marriage," the rights group said (Washingtontimes). Other Human rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings, forced labour and military gang-rapes, still occur. (IndyMedia). Sexual violence against women is being used by Burma's ruling military junta as a weapon of war (Brisbane.Indymedia). More than 1,300 political prisoners languish in Burmese jails for their movement of pro-democracy, according to Amnesty International (SFGATE). Buddhist nuns also were sentenced thirteen years imprisonment for a peaceful demonstration and call for lower price of rice, cooking rice as an act of protest and for calling for political dialogue between the military ruler and National League for Democracy (Brisbane.Indymedia). Among the political prisoners is the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. In 1990, the junta refused to recognize its defeat at the polls after 80 percent of parliamentary seats were won by the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi. From 1989 to 1995, the junta kept Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, under house arrest. She was again detained in 2000 for two years. Last May, government-backed thugs attacked hundreds of opposition supporters, and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest once more. (SFGATE)


Humanitarian crisis in the East: Burma s Dirty War

Burma's refusal to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and the boycotting of the constitutional convention by the main opposition, has thrust Burma into the spotlight of international criticism once again. But unseen and largely unremarked is the ongoing harrowing experience of hundreds of thousands of people in eastern Burma, hiding in the jungle or trapped in army-controlled relocation sites. Others are in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. Up to a million people have fled their homes in eastern Burma in a crisis the world has largely ignored.

These people are victims in a counterinsurgency war in which they are the deliberate targets. As members of Burma's ethnic minorities - which make up 40 per cent of the population - they are trapped in a conflict between the Burmese army and ethnic minority armies. Surviving on caches of rice hidden in caves, or on roots and wild foods, families in eastern Burma face malaria, landmines, disease and starvation. They are hunted like animals by army patrols and starved into surrender.

In interviews to Christian Aid, refugees reported murder and rape, the torching of villages and shooting of family members as they lay huddled together in the fields. They recalled farmers who had been blown up by landmines laid by the army around their crops. (christianaid)


Comments and Analysis

-- Like the South African leader Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi has become an international symbol of heroic and peaceful resistance in the face of oppression. For the Burmese people, Aung San Suu Kyi represents their best and perhaps sole hope that one day there will be an end to the country's military repression. May 2004 marks Aung San Suu Kyi s 15th year of on-and-off detention. Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi


-- Burma's Media Remain Under Tight Government Control in Reporting on Constitutional Convention. Journalists are even more worried than normal, after the country's courts recently cracked down on reporters and others accused of providing information to foreign aid organizations. The situation for the journalists in Burma remains very bleak.

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