BURMA: Plans Readied to Rig Constitution Referendum
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Apr 23 (IPS) – A rising star within the ranks of Burma’s military regime is reported to have unveiled a plan to ensure the junta gets its way at the May referendum for a new constitution, according to information revealed to IPS.
Lt. Gen Myint Swe told a meeting of some 600 people, which included senior government officials, that only the last 10 people to vote at each polling station will be entitled to monitor the counting of the ballots at the station, revealed a well-informed source close to the military, who attended the meeting.
Furthermore, the results of the votes counted at the local level will not be revealed as and when the tallies are confirmed, Myint Swe is reported to have added, the source said of the Apr. 9 meeting, which was held in the former capital, Rangoon. The junta’s plan is to reveal the final results in one announcement from the new capital, Naypidaw.
‘’This is to control the votes and rig the votes if needed,’’ says Win Min, a Burmese national security expert lecturing at Payap University, in northern Thailand. ‘’This is different from the 1990 elections, when they announced the results by each polling station at the local level, which makes controlling the result difficult.’’
At that election, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won a thumping majority despite the heavy odds it faced and the strong campaign launched by the junta to promote its own political party. However the junta refused to recognise the results. It opted, instead, to establish a national convention to draft a new constitution, a process that took a record 15 years and is finally awaiting approval on May 10.
Members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a pro-junta organisation, will be the ones sent to vote last at each polling station to ensure access to monitor the vote count, Win Min added in an interview. ‘’There have been widespread worries among the ministers, regional commanders, light infantry division commanders and senior USDA officials that they would be sacked if the referendum is lost in their respective areas.’’
Another plan the military has in store is to compel civil servants, university lecturers and school teachers to vote a week ahead of the referendum date in the direct presence of senior military officers, an order that ignores a voter’s right to secrecy.
‘’This is voter intimidation,’’ says Win Min. ‘’It shows that the authorities are worried that these civil servants are likely to vote ‘no’ if they are free to do so.’’
The role of Myint Swe in this effort to swing the plebiscite the junta’s way has broader implications, since he is known as a close confidante of the South-east Asian country’s strongman, Senior General Than Shwe. Some Burmese analysts concur that what Myint Swe says ‘’reflects Than Shwe’s mind”.
In fact, the army officer, in his late 50s, has played pivotal roles in the past to strengthen the military dictator’s grip on power in Burma, or Myanmar, as the junta has renamed it.
In early 2006, in his capacity as the head of the military division in Rangoon and as head of military intelligence, Myint Swe launched a campaign to track down citizens in Burma who were feeding the international media with information. This manhunt in an already oppressed country included targets that ranged from businessmen and civil servants to local journalists.
In 2004, it was Myint Swe who Than Shwe turned to when he wanted get rid of Gen. Khin Nyunt, the prime minister and the intelligence chief at that time. Myint Swe arrested Khin Nyunt at the airport after having ordered the soldiers under his Rangoon division to arrest key men attached to the Khin Nyunt’s intelligence office.
Myint Swe’s role to ensure an outcome favourable to the junta is no different to that of another confidante of Than Shwe, Maj. Gen. Htay Oo, the secretary-general of the USDA. The latter organisation, which Than Shwe founded in September 1993, has been given the lead role in the forthcoming referendum and the general elections to be held in 2010.
And Htay Oo’s role goes beyond ensuring that the USDA, which is officially reported to have 23 million members out of the country’s 54 million population, campaigns for a favourable vote. He is reportedly spearheading a programme of intimidation in the run-up to the plebiscite.
Currently, an old racecourse in downtown Rangoon, the Kyaik-Ka-San grounds, has been converted to a training centre for USDA toughs to learn such skills as beating, threatening and arresting civilians identified as opponents of the junta, says a Burmese source who has secured pictures of such sessions.
‘’Htay Oo is very close to Than Shwe and he is part of the junta’s campaign to intimidate voters into saying ‘yes’ at the referendum,’’ says Zin Linn, spokesman for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the Burmese government in exile. ‘’The training at the racecourse is under Htay Oo’s control. No wonder the people regard them as a mafia.’’
‘’NLD members and pro-democracy activists have already been attacked by these USDA members,’’ Zin Linn added in an interview. ‘’There is going to be more force unleashed as the days for the referendum draw closer.’’
The USDA’s notoriety as another arm of Than Shwe’s oppressive regime was on display in September 2007, when it joined the military and riot police in the brutal crackdown of the pro-democracy protests, led by thousands of maroon-robed monks.
In May 2003, the USDA was also implicated in a bloody attack on NLD members, including its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, during a political campaign in Depayin. Nearly 70 NDL supporters were killed by the mob of USDA members and other junta supporters.
In fact, the military official who masterminded the Depayin attack — aimed at silencing the universally popular pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi, now under house arrest — was Gen. Soe Win, another Than Shwe ally. He was subsequently named ‘’the Butcher of Depayin’’ by Burmese dissidents for his ruthlessness. But Than Shwe viewed his confidante differently, rewarding him with the role of prime minister following Khin Nyunt’s arrest.
Since it grabbed power in a March 1962 coup, the Burmese military has regularly served up officers prepared to unleash acts of repression as a pledge of loyalty to the dictator in power. Among the earliest in this Burmese military tradition was Brig. Gen. Sein Lwin. As a young commander, he gave soldiers the order to first shoot university students demonstrating and then to blow up the students’ union building at the Rangoon University with students trapped inside.
For such brutal acts in July 1962, Sein Lwin was dubbed ‘’the Butcher of Rangoon’’ by the Burmese opposition at the time. Yet it hardly came in the way of his rise within the military regime under Gen. Ne Win.
Sein Lwin was rewarded for implementing his master’s policies as Myint Swe is being rewarded today. The latter is reported to be Than Shwe’s second favourite after Gen Thura Shwe Mann, the third-most powerful military officer in Burma and the one Than Shwe reportedly favours as his successor.