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Burma publishes first of five new election laws

Burmese military junta unveil laws for elections later this year. French navy captures 35 Somali pirate suspects. Bali bombing mastermind thought dead after shoot-out with Indonesian police. Iran calls for China to withstand sanctions pressure. All this and much more, in today's security briefing.
Dries Belet
9 March 2010

On Monday, Burma’s military government approved legislation regulating future elections. State-controlled media announced details for the election commission law, the first in a series of five new laws. A date has yet to be set for the long-awaited polls, which are widely suspected of being a ploy by the ruling generals to consolidate their stranglehold on power.

Under the terms of the new law, the junta will handpick the five-person commission that will have the final say over the country’s first elections in twenty years. Each of the commission’s members must be at least 50 years old, cannot hold membership of a political party, and must be deemed by the military to have “integrity and experience”, and to “be loyal to the state and its citizens”. The commission will have exceptional powers, such as the ability to postpone voting in individual constituencies in cases of “natural disaster or due to the local security situation”. Details of the other four laws will be made public over the next few days, which relate to the organization of the two houses of parliament, and the polls for state and regional elections.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, yesterday said that he wrote a request for credible elections to Burma’s top general. Ban stated that in his letter he “expressed concern about this lack of progress” on democratic reforms. He also told reporters that all political prisoners, like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, should be released as soon as possible so that they can participate in the elections.

The openSecurity verdict: Critics around the world fear the new elections are an attempt by the generals to throw up a facade of democratic government to insulate the country from international criticism. The military government is unlikely to give up any real power willingly, and might be aiming to install a civilian puppet-government behind which it can continue to pull the strings. The published law seems to confirm this view, since under its provisions the new election commission can easily be filled with junta loyalists. Burma Campaign UK, an NGO pushing for human rights and democracy, has already stated that “this demonstrates the generals will dominate the entire process”.

Burma, officially called the Union of Myanmar, has been ruled by the military since 1962. The last democratic elections took place in 1990, when the party of pro-democracy politician and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi gained a landslide victory. However, the military government refused to hand over power and promptly annulled the elections, keeping Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the time since.

States such as the US, the EU, Japan, Australia, and Canada have imposed sanctions against Burma with a view to pressuring the government into moderating its stance. So far, the ruling generals have remained relatively impervious to outside demands for change. However, the proposed polls might be an attempt to recover some international standing in the hope of sanctions being lifted. As long as no substantial progress is made on pro-democratic reforms (a sine qua non condition being the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and her participation in the elections), all sanctions should be maintained. Lifting them would send the wrong signal to the military government, and other instruments like foreign aid programmes are available to reward smaller steps in the right direction.

While the US and EU have long been trying to exert influence through sanctions, the key player to hold sway over Burma’s elite is China. China is Burma’s biggest neighbour, and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has helped the military government to limit its diplomatic isolation. The Chinese leadership has cultivated strong ties with the ruling generals because of its strategic interests in the region. Burma occupies a key geopolitical spot, lying at the crossroads between China, India, south-east Asia, and the Indian Ocean. In addition, Burma’s abundant energy resources (oil and off-shore gas) render it very attractive for the voracious Chinese economy. For the same reason, India and Russia have also tried to curry favour with the Burmese government, but China remains its principal partner.

Accordingly, true change in the junta’s behaviour will likely require Beijing to take a tougher line with its unsavoury friends in Yangon. Even if only in private, a few words from Chinese diplomats might go a long way towards pushing the military government into a more moderate position on democracy and human rights. And if, as they say, the Chinese leaders are seriously concerned with long-term regional peace and stability in south-east Asia, they would do well to remind the generals that their intransigence is sustaining prolonged civil conflict in the country, with a high cost to the region.

French navy captures 35 suspected pirates

The French frigate Nivose, operating off the coast of Somalia, has captured 35 suspected pirates in three days. In a statement on Sunday, the French defence ministry claimed “the biggest seizure” so far since EU ships began patrolling the Gulf of Aden in 2008.

French officials claimed that four pirate ‘mother ships’ and six skiffs were seized in various sweeps over the weekend, with Spanish aerial support identifying and tracking down the pirates. In the most successful episode of the EU’s ‘operation Atlanta’ yet, EU forces used helicopters and fired warning shorts to capture the pirates. “The pirates are learning that we are not a soft touch”, a spokesperson in Paris said.

The prisoners will likely be flown to the neighbouring country of Kenya, which is prosecuting around a hundred previously captured pirates. However, very few have yet been convicted and most are wasting away in prison due to Kenya’s overburdened legal system. A handful of pirates have been sent off for trial in European countries and in the US, but jurisdiction over suspects captured on the high seas remains unclear.

The naval operations have not prevented new assaults by the pirates, who conttinue to launch attacks hundreds of miles to the south of the Gulf of Aden, striking as far as the Seychelles and Madagascar. On Friday, pirates got hold of the UBT Ocean, a Norwegian oil tanker, off the coast of Madagascar. The risk of being caught does not stop the pirates, who can get enormously rich through the ransoms of just a few successful attacks.

Bali bombing mastermind ‘killed in shoot-out with Indonesian police’

Indonesian police sources claim that Dulmatin, an explosives expert, was shot dead along with two other militants of the Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah today. The shoot-out occurred in a morning raid near the capital of Jakarta, and was said to be linked to police actions against militants after last month’s discovery of an Islamic terrorist training camp in Aceh.

Dulmatin is wanted in relation to the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, which killed 202 people. He is alleged to have set off one of the Bali bombs with a mobile phone, and to have helped make a massive car bomb used in the attacks. While there has been no confirmation of the shot man’s identity yet, the police are due to hold a press conference later today. The counter-terrorism operations come just two weeks before US President Barack Obama is due to visit the country, where he spent his childhood.

Iran calls for China to withstand sanctions pressure

On Tuesday, Iran urged China not to give in to pressure from the United States and its allies for new sanctions against Tehran. The US, Germany, France, Britain, Israel, and other "bullying powers" have been pushing for a new package of UN sanctions in response to Iran’s nuclear development. “We are hopeful that China will not be affected by other’s demands and will have its own foreign policy”, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said.

China, which is one of the five veto-wielding powers in the UN Security Council, has traditionally supported Iran and maintains close economic ties with the country. The US and, latterly, Europe have been trying to convince China and Russia of the need for a fourth sanctions package because of Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment. While Russia now seems willing to go along with the US and the Europeans to a certain extent, China has downplayed the likelihood of new sanctions, emphasizing the importance of continued diplomacy instead. Chinese firms have large investments in Iran’s energy and commercial sectors.

On Monday, Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom intensified pressure on Iran, calling for “crippling” sanctions during a visit to the United Nations. Shalom met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and told reporters he had asked Ban to “use his moral voice to ask the Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran”.

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