Burma Plans Its "Democracy"

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Rungroj Yongrit / EPA

Myanmar's junta leader General Than Shwe reviewing the honour guard in front of the Myanmar's three great kings statues.

The announcer on Burmese state television only had two sentences to offer, but they were supposed to herald good news. On May 10th, he declared, Burma would hold a constitutional referendum, giving citizens a rare chance to participate in the political process. In the wake of global condemnation of crushed protests last year, Burma's secretive junta had apparently committed itself to a modicum of reform. Among the first steps would be a plebiscite on the army-drafted charter. (The previous constitution was torn up by the junta 18 years ago, and the country has operated without a basic law since then.) Then would come multi-party elections in 2010. The end result would be what Burma's generals refer to as "discipline-flourishing democracy."

But, as you might expect from one of the world's most repressive regimes, the Burmese junta's version of democracy comes with plenty of catches. First, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition leader who has spent more than a decade under house arrest, will be barred from the 2010 elections because of a peculiar clause in the constitutional draft that disqualifies candidates who have family members who are foreigners. (Suu Kyi's husband, who died in 1999, was English, and her two sons hold British passports.) Second, despite several mentions of the word "democracy" — albeit always attached to the strange phrase "discipline-flourishing" — the draft ensures that the military will continue to exert great control over the nation. A quarter of all parliamentary seats will be filled by military officers, while the president must have a military background. And just in case a true democracy manages to flourish despite all the clauses designed to hinder it, the junta grants its members an amnesty from future prosecution.

Few Burmese will have the opportunity to peruse the 194-page charter draft. Currently, official copies are available only at government-run bookstores — and they must be purchased. Samizdat versions are available, and some pro-democracy activists have been poring through the text to publicize what they contend are the myriad ways in which the constitution subverts true democratic principles. But even if the draft were widely available, the majority of Burma's 53 million mostly impoverished residents are hardly likely to sit down with a 15-chapter tome.

The country's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, has called for Burmese voters to reject the draft. But given that Burma's generals (who prefer to call their country Myanmar) rejected a plea by the United Nations to allow international monitoring of the referendum, no outside observer will be able to indicate whether voting irregularities take place. Furthermore, a February law has made criticizing the referendum a crime punishable by imprisonment — hardly an ideal environment for open debate on the charter draft. Amnesty International estimates 700 political prisoners still crowd the country's jails as a result of last year's protest movement.

And politics aside, most Burmese are mainly focused on filling their bellies, as food prices keep climbing skyward. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese have already fled the country for economic reasons, sometimes with tragic consequences. On Wednesday, police in neighboring Thailand discovered a cold-storage container mounted on a truck that was crammed with 121 Burmese illegal immigrants who were hoping to find work as day laborers. At least 54 of the passengers had suffocated to death. Even though the incident highlights the dangers of illegal immigration, plenty more Burmese will likely flood over the border. And there's little chance that a constitutional referendum is going to stem that tide.

[NOTE: The junta that runs the country imposed a systematic name change several years ago, decreeing that Burma was to be called Myanmar and the capital Rangoon was to be Yangon. The opposition has never accepted these changes; neither has the U.S. government. TIME continues to use Burma and Rangoon.]