Thursday, November 4, 2010

Burma election: To vote or not to vote?

In the dead of night in army-ruled Burma, Aye Aung Lin and his team don their motorcycle helmets, leap on their bikes and risk their freedom to blitz four towns with their bold graffiti.

Like all of those aged under 38, these activists have never voted in a general election before, but getting the nation's youngsters into the polling booths on Sunday is exactly what they are trying to prevent.

One of their scrawled slogans has a big 2010 crossed out. Another simply says: "No vote".

"I believe that the election will not change anything because the political prisoners are not released and there are limitations," said 24-year-old Aye Aung Lin, whose name has been changed to protect his safety.

It is a stance that meets with much agreement across most Western nations, where Burma's rare poll has been widely criticised as a ploy to dress up military rule in civilian clothing.

But by advocating a boycott through through their subversive street art, poetry and hip hop music, the young radicals in this nationwide network, known as "Generation Wave", risk substantial jail terms if they are caught.

Twenty out of roughly 50 of them are already locked up, along with more than 2,000 political prisoners. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest and has been detained for most of the past 20 years.

"We believe that we will succeed one day but we need to keep trying," said Aye Aung Lin. "We want to reach out to people through the arts."

He is not the only youngster trying to sabotage the controversial poll, which has been boycotted by Suu Kyi's now disbanded National League of Democracy (NLD) after she was effectively excluded from the process.

"Our main objective is getting people not to vote," said Ko Yin Thit, an activist with the NLD's youth branch, who is distributing leaflets and photos of Nobel peace prize winner Suu Kyi to convince fellow citizens not to vote.

"This is to show the world that the new government won't be elected by the majority of the people and the whole thing is a set-up," said the 31-year-old, whose name has also been changed.

In recent days, Burma's state media has stressed that citizens must vote this weekend and warned those inciting a boycott that they face jail terms or fines.

"We could die or be put in prison, but I'm prepared for that," added Ko Yin Thit.

Suu Kyi, who has said she herself will not vote, swept her party to power in Burma's last election in 1990 despite being under house arrest, but the results were never recognised by the ruling generals.

This time around the junta is taking no chances: Suu Kyi is again under house arrest, a quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for the army, and regime-backed candidates have enjoyed hefty advantages over "pro-democracy" parties.

Yet not all of the younger generation dismiss the poll.

Some are spreading the message that, despite its many flaws, this election offers hope of gradual change in a country that has been under iron-fisted military rule for nearly five decades.

"The election is very important for our country and could lead to democracy. That is the reason why we want to give education about the voting process," said an ethnic Kachin woman, who gave the alias of Ester.

She and her friends have been travelling to meet some of the millions who have never seen a ballot box -- not to tell them to vote, but to explain the electoral process and point out that they can make a conscious choice.

"We have to participate whether it is fair or not. We will have another election -- maybe (in) 2015, 2020," said the optimistic 23-year-old in Rangoon, just returned from a voter education trip in northernmost Kachin state.

The election could also help the country's youth to realise they have a duty to pressure the authorities for democratic reforms, according to Burma analyst David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch.

"It's unfortunate that their first experience of democracy is so bitter," he said. "But something positive might come out if the kids are watching how the process works and how it is flawed."

Source: Bangkok Post

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