Burma's sham elections
The Guardian, Waihnin Pwint Thon
In May I finally experienced a free and fair election. Unfortunately, I was thousands of miles from my homeland – Burma. I witnessed the UK's May elections as a refugee in the country.
Next month, there will be elections in Burma and the eyes of the world will briefly turn upon the country. But these elections will be neither free nor fair. The polls are a masquerade designed solely to appease global opinion. The only winners will be the corrupt and brutal elite who rule the country. Dictatorship will continue.
Yet, the mere fact that elections are taking place offers a glimmer of hope. Although, on the surface, the picture suggests that the generals are beyond fear, and entirely confident that they will continue to get away with their blatant disregard for the rights of the population, I believe there are signs that they are scared.
Burma is a country where freedom of association, assembly and expression are severely limited, and torture, child labour and illegal detentions are commonplace. Sadly, they are all human rights violations I have witnessed firsthand.
My father is one of the famed Generation 88 leaders. On 8 August 1988, he and his fellow activists led thousands of students on to the streets of Rangoon as part of a wave of a million people who gathered to peacefully protest against the ruling military junta. The protests were put down by the most brutal means, and organisers such as my father were beaten, tortured and jailed.
He was released in 1996; I was eight years old. I was so happy to see him as a free man, and although I was still shy around him because of his absence throughout my younger years, I was glad to be able to hug him and talk to him whenever I wished to.
Even though he was home with us, I worried about him constantly. He continued his political activities – of course that is something I now admire profoundly, but at the time I lived in constant fear that the military intelligence would storm into our home in the middle of the night and take him away.
Sometime after my father was released, I came to the UK to study. While here, I watched international coverage unfold of the 2007 "Saffron revolution", where people took to the streets of Rangoon once more, with renewed optimism, and persistent courage, that this time democracy would be achieved. It was not, and the junta violently suppressed the protests once more. My father was sentenced to 65 years this time, a death sentence for him.
Over the last months, I have attended the party conferences of the three largest UK political parties with Amnesty International, and spoken about Burma and the obligations of the international community toward the people of that country, who are being kept hostage in their own land.
Like my father before me, I consider it my duty to let the world know what is going on. While he instigated pressure within the country, I hope to amplify the pressure on the regime from outside – and the two forces combined may help make inroads into the seeming confidence they portray.
Some argue that the generals are immune to international pressure, ignoring calls for free and fair elections and banning the National League for Democracy, and continuing to detain Aung San Suu Kyi and the more than 2,100 other political prisoners. But I see November's elections as a sign of how scared the generals are of strong international pressure.
The world has forgotten that these elections were announced back in 2003 as part of a so-called seven-stage road map to democracy. They were announced then because the world was outraged after the regime-sponsored attempt to assassinate Suu Kyi. At last it seemed like the international community would introduce tough, targeted sanctions.
Burma's generals hoped the promise of elections would avoid strong pressure. It worked. For seven years the international community has told us to wait and see what happens. Our suffering has continued.
Once these elections are over there must be no more excuses, no more calls for us to "wait and see". We cannot allow these elections to masquerade as part of a progress towards democracy that legitimises the junta's ongoing persecution of the people. The idea that we might, scares me.
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