Download This year looks set to be a crucial one for Burma.
The military government has announced that the first elections for 20 years will be held on November the 7th.
Attempts to affect change from with in the country have been answered with the brutal suppression of political dissent.
Despite international recognition of the need for change in Burma, economic sanctions and isolation appear to have had little impact on the country’s military rulers.
So are these elections an historic opportunity to create positive change or will they cement the military government’s oppressive rule further?
Asia Calling held its 2010 forum this week to discuss: ‘Good neighbours? Bring positive change to Burma’.
The first speaker is Harn Yawnghwe (YONG-WEI) the youngest son of the first President of the Republic of the Union of Burma and the Director of the European Office for the Development of Democracy in Burma based in Brussels whose aim is to prepare Burma for a transition to democracy.
He believes the elections are a step forward.
"The intention of the military is of course to cement their grip but in my opinion it is also an opportunity because they are admitting that in order to be legitimate they need the people’s approval so that is where the opportunity lies. So how can we actually make it so the people have their voices heard? The military will want everyone to vote for them but if we can force it to be a little bit freer then maybe we can have some more voices coming out and eventually the voices of the people will prevail."
Q. But right now according to the news coming out of Burma the elections appear far from free or fair. So areas are being told they can’t vote, Aung San Suu Kyi and other key opposition figures are barred from running – how is there any hope that it can be a fair poll?
"The irony is that conditions are very similar to the 1990 elections when Aung San Suu Kyi was not allowed to run and she didn’t run but when the election results came out we all said that she said it was legitimate. So in a way it’s a bit hypocritical to say that this is not legitimate because she is not allowed to run and we don’t think she will win. The military will manipulate for sure but the hope is that we still can get some legitimate voice from the people."
Q. So, according to the new constitution, it states that 25 percent of the seats must go to members of the military but 75 seats are for non-military members. Do you think the military generals will allow new voices, fresh faces that are opposed to their rule and power?
"Right now half the parties running in the election are genuine opposition parties and not with the military but whether the military will allow them to exist is another matter. They have started disqualifying candidates on the basis of various rules and they have not allowed some parties to register so we will have to see on Election Day whether there are opposition parties left."
Q. What about the ethnic parties—you are from the Shan group—a lot of the ethnic groups have put up political parties and are keen to take part. Do you believe the election will benefit them or are they just being used as pawns by the military?
"People see they are being used as pawns but at the same time the different ethnic groups feel that they have to have their own voice and their own representation. They cannot allow the Burmese military to represent them so that’s why they are participating and they are very sure that if the voting is free the people will vote for them not the military party."
Q. Do you think that will be the case – what do you predict will happen on election day—will we see people going to the polls?
"I think it depends on the area but in most of the ethnic areas I think people will go to the polls where there are parties that they can support. The problem in other parts of Burma is that there isn’t a national opposition party so there is a gap where there is no party running against the government so in those areas the turn-out will be much lower."
Q. Other exiled leaders and activists are calling for a boycott of the election because they fear that the election will only cement the military and it’s very dangerous. How do you respond to that call for a boycott?
"I think that it’s probably a mistake to boycott the election. No dictatorship willingly gives up power. All dictatorships try to have elections to legitimise their rule but in most cases we see that they cannot control the process. When they accept that the will of the people is the key then eventually we get democracy. So I believe it’s the same thing, the military thinks that they can control the process but when you go down this road you cannot control it."
Q. In what way will they not be able to control it?
"Because the more people know about democracy the more people get involved in voting the more they begin to know about their rights. They are not just going to let the military rule over them because once the process gets started they have to protect their own rights—the people will begin to see that."
Q. What do you think people can do in countries across Asia - like in Indonesia right through to Afghanistan - can do to create positive change in Burma?
"There have been many experiences of change across the region. So I think we need much more people to people contact so that we can really learn from each other. And also for the governments to really say to the Burmese government that they must have credible elections that are more inclusive and it needs to solve problems politically and not through military means and I think that kind of message would really help."
Harn Yawnghwe the youngest son of the first president of the Republic of the Union of Burma and the Director of the European Office for the Development of Democracy in Burma based in Brussels whose aim is to prepare Burma for a transition to democracy.