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La Birmania vota

La Birmania va al voto. Domenica. Con  i militari al potere. Luci e ombre del voto. (Sopra un teashop birmano). Di seguito una interessante corrispondenza, sotto pseudonimo, di un giornalista del Guardian (5.11.2010):

Burma’s voters discuss election with caution

Sunday’s election – the country’s first in a generation – brings limited hope for ordinary Burmese

Jack Davies in Moulmein, Friday 5 November 2010 16.01 GMT Article history

In the roadside teashops men in longyis sit on low stools. They talk over sweet milky tea and acrid cheroot cigarettes. These dusty cafes are the places where people come to talk, argue and listen.

Politics, for decades forbidden, can be discussed now, but the caution of a lifetime dies hard. Even now, in a nascent “democratic” Burma, Sunday’s election is discussed only obliquely, in low tones, and with a cautious glance at those around.

In Burma, one never knows who is listening. “Out here, we are the three wise monkeys. We hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil,” the elderly teashop owner says in perfect English. “Come to the back. We are among friends there.”

This is Moulmein, a port town and the colonial-era capital of Burma’s Mon state, on the south-eastern Andaman coast. Here, the election exists in subtle references to unreliable electricity, untraceable taxes, unremitting poverty. But to talk openly of politics, to post a sign, to wear a T-shirt, is to invite trouble.

U Thein Htun is sitting in the teashop’s back room. The election will change nothing for the people, he says. “They don’t like the government, but they are too worried about having enough food to eat, enough money for their family. The election means nothing. We already know who will win.”

U Thein Htun wants a boycott of the elections. He says that to see empty ballot boxes being returned would show the world the elections are a sham designed to entrench the military rule that dominates every aspect of life in Burma.

“But if you do not take your vote, the government will take it for you,” U Soe Lwin interjects. “They will fill your vote for you, and vote for themselves. The election is bad, but it is all we have. It is a small step towards democracy. People must vote, and tell the government they are doing a bad thing for the people.”

Days away from the first democratic opportunity of their lives, others are still undecided. “I don’t think my vote will make any difference,” one man says. “The generals will change their uniforms, but they will not change the country.”

About the only thing on which there is agreement in this election is the result. The military junta’s Union Solidarity and Development party will win.

Headed by the current prime minister, Thein Sein, who has resigned his military commission to contest the election, the junta’s party will field 1,112 candidates in 1,158 seats, at local, provincial and national level.

The largest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, will field 163. The junta’s party has already won 52 seats simply because its candidate is the only one nominated.

The government has bankrolled its campaign by selling state assets to cronies for millions of dollars. Scores of opposition candidates have had to abandon their campaigns because they cannot afford to run. The nomination fee of more than £300 is several months’ wages to most Burmese.

The junta is also doing everything in its power to ensure it is only Burmese who will see what happens in the election. It has refused to allow independent election monitors or foreign journalists into the country to watch the poll. Those who have managed to get in, along with aid workers and any foreigners inside the country, are being closely watched, photographed in the street, and followed.

For most of the past fortnight, the internet in the country has been almost completely shut down. Landlines to the outside world have been cut and the sale of mobile phone sim cards has been outlawed.

Millions of Burmese have been excluded from the election too. Across huge swaths of the country, there will be no voting.

Politics in Burma is indivisible from ethnicity, and parts of the country controlled by ethnic rebel armies, including nearly half of Mon state, have been declared “black areas” by the government, deemed unsafe to hold a poll.

Like the Shan, the Karen, the Wa and others, the Mon people who live in this part of Burma are an ethnic minority, with a separate culture, language and identity. They have been resisting the junta’s brutal rule and campaigning for autonomy for generations.

The junta has responded by driving the Mon and other ethnic groups from their homes, razing villages, murdering those who resist or cannot flee, and forcing tens of thousands into refugee camps.

In the back corner of the teashop, a soldier from the rebel Mon National Liberation Army, unarmed and temporarily out of uniform, has come down from the territory his troops control in the mountains bordering Thailand to see the election’s progress.

The MNLA and the government have been on ceasefire for years, but the solder believes the junta will attack again soon, consolidating an election win by taking back the huge tracts of land the Mon and other rebel armies control.

Mon army generals recently ordered the shooting on sight of any government troops caught near Mon-controlled territory. But any fight would be hopeless. Soldiers in the Mon army number about 700. The government can mobilise 400,000 troops.

“The [junta’s] generals only understand force,” he says. “The world must use force against our government. American politicians come to talk, [the UN secretary-general] Ban Ki-moon comes to talk, but it does nothing.”

The soldier says Burma’s national flag was changed two weeks ago from one featuring 14 stars – representing the seven provinces of Burma and the seven major ethnic groups – to a green, red and yellow striped standard with a single white star.

In a country where election dates are set and decisions to build a new capital city are taken on the advice of astrologers, the star is significant.

“It means they want one Burma, one people. They want only [ethnic] Burmese in this country. They want to kill people … who are not the same. They want to wipe us out.”

In a hotel room in Moulmein, we meet U Nai Nwe, spokesman for the All Mon Regions Democracy party. That the government will win the election is beyond doubt, he says. It has stacked the odds so carefully and completely in its favour that no other result is possible.

But he says that people must participate to give themselves a voice. “We will do our best to help the Mon people. But people must vote or we cannot help: we will not be in the parliament.

“The government worries about the Mon party, because we have strong support. We believe they will lie about the result, they will say the election here is won by the government party. If the election is free and fair, the opposition parties will win.”

He concedes that there is little hope of that. “If we don’t win, it means the government has cheated, but we don’t worry, we will keep going … we have a political party, we never had that before.”

There is a saying that all politics is local, and there is nowhere this is truer than in Burma.

Campaigning for this election is, perhaps understandably, unsophisticated. For most of the parties, the campaign centrepiece is a pickup truck draped with a flag and festooned with loudspeakers, along with a handful of signs carried by volunteers, and a candidate, almost apologetically, handing out pamphlets.

Often it is nothing more than a man on a bicycle with a jerry-rigged loudspeaker – a “stump speech” on wheels.

Candidates keep moving and campaigners are regularly followed by the police special branch. They are harassed, and the people they speak with are threatened, sometimes for nothing more than taking a pamphlet thrust before them.

It makes the fight for votes doubly hard. Not only do opposition parties need to convince voters of their policies, and that they can make any difference at all against the might of the military, they also need to convince people it is safe to vote for them, that their vote won’t be traced, and that they won’t face retribution.

In Burma, the teashops are never quiet for long. In the mid-afternoon people seek sanctuary from the heat and the noise of the street.

“Our country has a new flag, a new name, maybe it will be a new country,” the Moulmein teashop owner says, pouring another cup. “Maybe things will change. But I don’t think so. This place, always the same.”

Some names have been changed. Jack Davies is a Guardian reporter writing under a pseudonym


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