Update On Burma: What Next For The Pro-democracy Movement?
Since the uprising in September 2007, Burma has suffered the wrath of cyclone Nargis, and undergone a so-called ‘Constitutional Referendum’ as part of the Government’s ‘Roadmap to Democracy’. In this article AWID touches on a calamity of nature, the tragedy of a government and the hopes and endurance of a people, asking: What next for the pro-democracy movement? By Rochelle Jones
The ‘Saffron Revolution’
What began as a rally against fuel prices in late August 2007 escalated into a full-scale pro-democracy civil uprising in Burma – led by the Buddhist clergy, but with civilians joining the marches in solidarity with a regime boycott. Women were at the forefront of the demonstrations, with key activists forced into hiding to escape arrest . Soon after the protests began, a government unwilling to loosen its grip on power inevitably quashed Burma’s ‘saffron revolution’ and answered the calls for democracy with bullets and violence - despite diplomacy efforts by the UN and strong condemnation, including tougher sanctions, from the international community. The death toll after the crackdown is unknown.
With key activists either arrested or driven into hiding, the Burmese regime successfully retreated into its blurry and inaccessible state, leaving international actors to analyse what happened and speculate on the junta’s next steps. A standing invitation exists for UN Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, to visit Burma and continue meetings with regime and pro-democracy leaders, but so far these meetings have yielded very little, and the latest has been postponed. According to The Economist, some low-level protests have continued, but most of those detained in September 2007 remain in prison. One protester, “Ohn Than, who was arrested last August while staging a silent sit-in to protest against fuel-price rises, was sentenced… to life imprisonment. Some protest leaders are still in hiding, planning the next round. Others have fled to Thailand.” 
The junta continues to respond harshly to any dissent or activism, and the country has returned to a state of fear. Prominent women activists are either still in hiding after the uprising, or have been arrested and detained. For example, according to the Irrawaddy – an independent media organisation based in Thailand, Nilar Thein, one of the women activists forced to go into hiding in September last year after leading a demonstration against fuel hikes, was still on the run at the end of January 2008, and still separated from her young daughter who would now be around 12 months old. With her husband already a political prisoner, Nilar’s daughter is being cared for by her grandparents. 
Su Su Nway, who also led a demonstration in August 2007, was arrested by authorities and is reportedly in solitary confinement at the notorious Insein Prison after an argument with prison guards on 5 July. Su Su narrowly escaped after authorities dragged her away during the demonstration, but was later arrested in November whilst putting up leaflets next to a hotel where a UN human rights investigator was staying. 
On 2 May, 2008 cyclone Nargis swept through the Ayeyarwady Delta and took the lives of approximately 130,000 people in Burma, dramatically changing millions more lives. Many citizens of Burma, who had their hopes dashed after the violent crackdown on dissent in September, were this time subject to the wrath of nature.
Some hopes remain, however. The exiled editor of the Irrawaddy claims “Burmese widely view Cyclone Nargis as "divine intervention… many devout Buddhists trace the catastrophe back to a violent sacrilege committed by the junta [where] last September crowds of monks took to the streets… [and] the regime put a quick and bloody end to the "Saffron Revolution," beating and jailing monks and laypeople alike and killing as many as 138... Now the monster cyclone, with all its human suffering, is being taken as proof that Sr. Gen. Than Shwe and his junta have lost the "mandate of heaven"--the supernatural right to govern.” 
Govern they do, however, and their dire mismanagement of the disaster has exacerbated the suffering felt by an estimated “2.4 million people [that] have been severely affected by the cyclone and almost one million [who] lost their livelihoods and have been left without adequate quantities of food” . In May the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, met General Than Shwe and “secured a promise of free access for foreign aid workers to the millions of victims of cyclone Nargis.” Two months after the cyclone, however, it is unclear how many have actually been reached. . Existing gender roles and inequalities determine vulnerability in natural disasters, which means women in Burma are most probably shouldering a disproportionate amount of the burden . Given the junta’s glacial pace at which it opened its borders to (selective) aid and assistance from the international community, gender lessons learned from previous disaster responses will probably be difficult, if not impossible to implement.
The impact of the cyclone on the junta’s rule is uncertain. One thing for sure is that all eyes are back on the Government. Similarly, the impact on pro-democracy activism in Burma is yet to be fully realised. Phyu Phyu Thin, who is a prominent activist in Burma, came out of hiding after the cyclone to assist HIV/AIDS patients she works with, risking arrest by the Burmese authorities . She is described as belonging to a “new generation of female activists” in Burma, alongside others such as the aforementioned Su Su Nway and Nilar Thein. True to the spirit of the people of Burma, Phyu Phyu’s willingness to help those in need, risking her own freedom, is an example of the resolve of the people. It is also indicative of the devastating impact Nargis has had.
The Constitutional Referendum
In its one gesture toward political reform, the junta announced a referendum on the new constitution on May 10. With cyclone Nargis leaving a wake of destruction on May 2, the disaster appeared only to be an annoying bump in the road for the ambitions of the regime, which postponed the referendum in the hardest hit areas for two weeks, but went ahead in the rest of the country on May 10. If the draft was approved by 50% of voters, the junta promised multiparty elections in 2010, and then on "Armed Forces Day", March 27th, General Than Shwe would hand over power to a civilian government .
On May 15, without waiting for the second round of voting from the cyclone-hit areas, the Government announced that 92.4 per cent of voters had approved the draft constitution, with a 99 per cent turnout . This announcement was met with immediate condemnation from the National League for Democracy - Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party. The NLD revealed how ballots were not allowed to be cast in secret, and that voters were forced to vote ‘yes’.
Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive report  on the discredited referendum before it took place, asserting that “the environment in Burma prior to the referendum has been one of continuing intimidation of the political opposition and general populace, denial of basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, and arbitrary arrests and detention. Under such widespread repression and a pervasive climate of fear, no free and fair referendum can take place in Burma.”
The now ‘approved’ Constitution is the product of a National Convention, the aim of which was to draw up a list of basic principles for the Constitution. In reality, the “National Convention only served as a fig-leaf for the SLORC’s [SPDC’s] drafting of a constitution that guaranteed future military control, giving the process some semblance of “democratic” legitimacy. The delegates had no real input on the draft constitution itself, and were powerless to influence the outcome of the process to any significant degree.” 
Where to now?
One commentator argues that “regime changes have often seemed to follow natural disasters. Political leaders anywhere can lose vital support after a catastrophe; witness the Republicans' loss of control over Congress in 2006, after Hurricane Katrina. Major earthquakes struck Nicaragua in 1972, China in 1976 and Mexico in 1985; check your history books on what happened there afterward, coincidentally or otherwise. It takes more than a mere natural disaster to topple a dictatorship, but disasters tend to bring out the failings of regimes that are seen as repressive, unpopular, incompetent or corrupt.” 
Whether or not cyclone Nargis will contribute to a more positive political future in Burma is certainly debatable. At present, people are numb from the devastation. If there is any pattern that emerges from Burma – aside from the military abusing their power – it is that agitation for change can only intensify. Nargis has helped to dismantle any legitimacy the Government may have had – and many activists who have not been arrested may lay low for some time, but their passion for change will not subside.
A particularly interesting phenomenon in Burma is the so-called “new generation of female activists who are able to compete with their male counterparts in organizations that strive to promote democracy in Burma” . Their courage and tenacity throughout adversity has proven that hopes for democracy in Burma remain strong.
 See AWID’s previous analysis of the uprising at: http://www.awid.org/eng/Issues-and-Analysis/Library/Uprising-in-Burma-Women-s-Activism2/
 "Spring postponed - Myanmar.(What has happened to Myanmar's revolution?). ." The Economist (US). 387.8575 (April 12, 2008)
 Cited in Liu, Melinda. "A Curse From The Heavens.(International)(Cyclone Nargis). ." Newsweek. 151.20 (May 19, 2008): 36. http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/ips/start.do?prodId=IPS
 "A month of misery; Myanmar.(Myanmar's misery lingers). ." The Economist (US). 387.8583 (June 7, 2008): 54
 See AWID’s previous analysis on gender and natural disasters: http://www.awid.org/eng/Issues-and-Analysis/Library/Gender-and-natural-disasters-Why-we-should-be-focusing-on-a-gender-perspective-of-the-Tsunami-disaster/(language)/eng-GB
 The Irrawaddy Magazine. Women in the Movement. July 2008, Volume 16 No.7: http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=13191
 Ibid Note 2.
 ABC News. Opposition Rejects Burma Referendum Result. http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/05/17/2247910.htm?section=world
 Human Rights Watch. Vote to Nowhere: The May 2008 Constitutional Referendum in Burma. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/burma0508/
 Liu, Melinda. "A Curse From The Heavens" Newsweek. 151.20 (May 19, 2008): 36
 Ibid Note 9.