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Burma's Rulers Tighten Grip on Power


This week, Rangoon extended by another year its five-year detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. And last week, the government held the second round of a referendum on a new constitution in the wake of a devastating cyclone that left more than 130,000 people dead or missing. Meanwhile, cyclone survivors have seen little aid from Rangoon -- more than three weeks after the storm.

President Bush says he is deeply troubled by Burma's decision to continue the house arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained since 2003. He called on Burma this week to release all of its political prisoners and to begin a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, the National League for Democracy, as well as with other pro-democracy and ethnic minority groups.

U.S. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack says the extension of the Nobel Peace laureate's house arrest was hardly a surprise, and calls it "a sad commentary" on the state of political freedom in Burma. But McCormack says it will not affect U.S. efforts to help the Burmese people recover from Cyclone Nargis.

"We're going to continue to speak out about the nature of the regime and certainly our previous public statements about the terrible state of human rights in Burma stand and we'll continue to speak out on behalf of human rights," says McCormack. "But part of trying to do what is right for the Burmese people is to provide humanitarian assistance in this time of extreme need."

U.N. Efforts

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who traveled to Rangoon last week, says Aung San Suu Kyi's case is one of the most serious concerns of the international community. He promises the United Nations will continue to press Burma, also known as Myanmar, to free political activists. "The sooner restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi and other political figures are lifted, the sooner Myanmar will be able to move towards inclusive national reconciliation, the restoration of democracy and full respect for human rights," says Mr. Ban.

But the secretary-general made it clear that his four-day visit to Burma was a humanitarian one, intended to save the lives of cyclone victims, and was not to push a pro-democracy agenda.

Jared Genser is a Washington-based attorney who represents Aung San Suu Kyi and is trying to mobilize international support for her release. He criticizes Mr. Ban for missing an opportunity to raise human rights issues with Burma's rulers.

"I think it is a fundamental mistake on the part of people like Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to go to Burma -- the first time in 44 years a secretary-general has been to the country -- and to not raise the question of Suu Kyi and the referendum in his meeting with General Than Shwe [, Burma's Senior General]," says Genser. "Because ultimately, even if you are able to provide short term relief to the people in the cyclone affected areas, that does nothing to solve the long-term problems facing the country."

Cyclone Politics

In recent weeks, Burma's military rulers have taken steps to strengthen their hold on power. Soon after the cyclone hit, they held a two-stage referendum on a new constitution, which they say will pave the way for elections in 2010. The government claims that 98 percent of the people took part in the vote and that more than 92 percent approved the document.

"They even claim that among the 2.4 million most severely affected people in the Irrawaddy Delta and in Rangoon that the turnout in the second round of the referendum was well over 90 percent," says Jared Genser. "So to suggest that people of whom 60 percent had not received any aid at all -- we are talking no food, no water, no shelter -- that those people turned out at a 90 percent rate in a country that is substantially rural is on its face obviously false. Clearly they fixed the election [i.e., the referendum]."

Debbie Stothard is an activist with the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, a human rights and democracy-building organization. She says the country's military government used cyclone aid to coerce its people.

"People who were trying to recover from the devastation of Cyclone Nargis were told that they had to vote 'yes' if they wanted to receive aid," says Stothard. "It's very clear that this entire referendum is characterized by fraud, by coercion, by intimidation."

The new constitution would guarantee 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military and allow the president to hand over all power to the military in a state of emergency -- elements that critics say defy the military government's professed commitment to democracy.

A Bangkok-based political analyst, Larry Jagan, says he is not optimistic about genuine democracy emerging in Burma under the new constitution. "If there is to be a real transition to multi-party democracy, as all of the military leaders of Burma are insisting, then they have to allow some form of liberalization," says Jagan.

The Politics of Aid

Since Ban Ki-moon's visit to Rangoon, Burma's rulers have allowed more international relief to trickle into the country. Burma has come under intense criticism for not letting aid workers distribute supplies inside the country to help cyclone victims -- more than three weeks after the storm.

The military government says it welcomes foreign aid "without stings attached," but so far has allowed only a few relief workers into the country.

Some observers, including attorney Jared Genser, wonder how such a small country could snub the international offers of help.

"Because they have developed and cultivated powerful allies in the form of such countries as China and India, and now Thailand and other members of the [U.N.] Security Council like South Africa, Vietnam and others who have their own economic interests to preserve the regime as is," says Genser. "China does not want to see democratization of Burma because it means that they would then have to compete with the West and other countries for liquid natural gas, oil, timber and gemstones, which are in abundant supply in Burma."

Genser says he hopes a national reconciliation can bring together Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, various ethnic groups and the military government to achieve a democratic transition similar to the one that took place in South Africa. He says this is the only long-term solution to Burma's problems.


This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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