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Paul Copeland: The referendum is a joke

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ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: The military government in Burma announced this week that a draft of the new constitution is complete. The draft will be put to a referendum in May of this year. It bars well-known opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from standing as a candidate because she has a foreign husband. To analyze events, The Real News spoke to Paul Copeland, director of the Law Society of Upper Canada and a member of the International Commission of Jurists.

AFSAN CHOWDHURY, JOURNALIST: Paul, we have just heard an announcement that there will be a referendum in May on the proposed constitution by the military junta in Burma, in 2010 a possible election. Do you think this has credibility?

PAUL COPELAND, TORONTO BURMA ROUNDTABLE: No, it has no credibility whatsoever. The constitution started being debated in Burma in 1993, I think in January of 1993. They’ve been going through this charade for years and years and years. They’ve now announced that the constitution was finally drafted. They’re going to put it to the people for a referendum. But the constitution as drafted gives 25 percent of the seats to the military. The military has a guiding role. It’s just, to my mind, another step in the process of the military trying to do things to placate the West and occasionally placate ASEAN.

CHOWDHURY: China plays a very major role. China gains from having the situation as it is now.

COPELAND: Absolutely. Absolutely. They have access to the resources. They’ve sold over $1 billion worth of arms to the Burmese military. They want access to the oil. And it appears that there’s a significant amount of oil and gas both in Burma and in the Andaman Sea, just off-Burma. And China’s vying very much to get a piece of it, as is India. I mean, that’s why both countries are seeking to placate the generals and in India’s case backed off supporting the democracy movement.

CHOWDHURY: You see history of almost 30 years where promises are made and not kept, and the situation has not improved, and yet the international community remains as they are. Is it that they really don’t care?

COPELAND: I think there are a number of countries, actually, that do care. But it is very hard, particularly with China and India supporting Burma and a number of the ASEAN countries investing in Burma, it’s very hard for Japan, the European Union, and the Americans and Australians, I suppose Canadians, to actually affect anything that’s going on in the country.

CHOWDHURY: The western pressure is more to make China uncomfortable in Burma rather than support the people of Burma. What would be your take on that?

COPELAND: I think it’s both. I think that they’re supportive of the people of Burma. There’s huge international support and recognition of Aung San Suu Kyi and the movement that she leads. So that’s there. Do they want to do things that cause China problems? Absolutely.

CHOWDHURY: In Darfur, it is supporting the Sudan government for oil. In Burma, it is supporting the Burmese government, Than Shwe government, for oil to a great extent.

COPELAND: When they started supporting, there was very little oil going on, there was very little happening. There was a little bit in the building of the pipeline by Total and Unocal. China was supporting the military then. They were selling them, as I say, over $1 billion worth of arms. The talk in Burma is that Mandalay is a Chinese city. So the Chinese influence there is huge. There are a lot of natural resources that I think would interest all of the countries in ASEAN. And whatever else they’re extracting from the country—I mean, the country’s rich in teak, it’s rich in gemstones, it’s rich now in oil, it used to be a major rice producer.

CHOWDHURY: In this election, is there an opportunity for the Burmese voter to participate?

COPELAND: The referendum is a joke, and the announcements from the UN are that it is a joke, that it’s in contravention of what the UN was seeking there. They’re talking about sending [“an-BA-ree”] to the region again. There are, I think, 14 countries involved in debates about what’s going on in Burma at the UN, and they all think that the referendum on the constitution is just meaningless.

CHOWDHURY: But over time China has emerged as a major power, both economically and militarily. So are we seeing a resurgence of bipolarity and then multi-polarity with the oil access being the deciding factor?

COPELAND: Well, there are a couple of things. Yes, certainly China is making huge strides in becoming a very significant world power. Two, the Bush-Cheney regime has destroyed the credibility of the United States on almost every issue that exists. I mean, to have the Bush regime coming to the Security Council saying, “We want the Security Council to take steps around Burma” in many ways is a negative towards support of the democracy movement. Right now, with what the Americans have done in Iraq, what they’ve done in torturing people, what they’ve done in Guantanamo, all of it, I think, internationally has made the Americans almost a pariah.

CHOWDHURY: So between people standing up, between monks standing up and the military standing there with its arms and guns, backed by one of the biggest powers in the world, where would your money be about the future?

COPELAND: In the short term? With the military. I think that they will maintain in control. But Than Shwe’s not particularly healthy. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when he goes. Now, the military’s been very seamless in continuing in control, and when one person dies off or gets sick, they move in somebody else. There’s been some significant disagreements in the military. Khin Nyunt, who was the head of military intelligence, he’s now under house arrest. So the struggle goes on.

CHOWDHURY: We do not see a moment, except when the people of Burma in revolt, where they can be positively optimistic. But we are not seeing a revolt. We are not seeing a situation where the people can stand up and say, “Yeah, this is our country. Give it back.”

COPELAND: I think they did that in ’88. I think they did that this summer, starting with the ’88-generation students, who are some of the bravest people around. They all spent fifteen years in jail. They come out, and they peacefully again saying, “We want our country back. We want freedom. We want democracy.” So there are people in Burma who are extremely courageous, although a significant number of them are in jail right now. But there have been moments in the country when the people have stood up and said, “This can’t go on,” and the military successfully crushed them.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Paul Copeland, Lawyer, has been a Bencher (director) of the Law Society of Upper Canada since 1990, is Co-President of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted, a member of the Law Union of Ontario and was a member of the International Commission of Jurists.