News and Notes

Issue Date Spring 1990
Volume 1
Issue 2
Page Numbers 132-35
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Burmese Ban Leading Opposition Candidate

On January 17 Burma’s military regime banned Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the country’s most popular opposition leader, from participating in elections scheduled for May. Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since 20 July 1989, when the regime began its most recent crackdown on the opposition. Thousands of antigovernment activists have since been jailed, including much of the leadership of both the NLD and the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS), the most prominent dissident student group.

The one-party regime of General Ne Win has ruled Burma (recently renamed Myanmar) since toppling the country’s democratic government in a 1962 coup. Though Ne Win stepped down from his last formal political post in July 1988, he is still thought to control the regime, which is now headed by Prime Minister Saw Maung. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of the late Aung San, widely regarded as the founding father of independent Burma. She became the leading voice in the opposition during demonstrations in September 1988, when hundreds of thousands of Burmese took to the streets to protest economic hardship and one-party rule. The military opened fire on the demonstrators, killing at least 3,000 by Western estimates. Thousands more were subsequently imprisoned.

As a result of the government crackdown, an estimated ten thousand antigovernment activists—mostly students and professionals—fled to remote border areas to seek refuge and, in some cases, to take up arms with the ethnic minorities that have waged guerrilla war against the central government since independence. International relief organizations report that tropical diseases and malnutrition, together with government military offensives, have taken an enormous toll on these refugees. Many of [End Page 132] those who have sought protection in Thailand have faced forced repatriation by the Thai government.

In an effort to quell popular discontent in the wake of the September 1988 crackdown, the regime pledged to hold “free and fair” elections this May for a People’s Assembly. Observers believe that the government disqualified Aung San Suu Kyi for fear that she might win the election despite being detained. More than 200 parties have registered for the elections, encouraged by government incentives like gasoline and telephone access. Few represent genuine political forces, however, and many are controlled by the government. The regime has also given itself broad discretion to ban parties that it believes are connected to ethnic-based rebel groups. With the most popular opposition parties effectively crippled and martial law still in place, Burma’s spring election is expected simply to ratify continued de facto military rule.

Dissidents Press For Change in Cuba

In a statement released to the media in Havana on January 5, the dissident Cuban Party for Human Rights (PPDHC) has demanded that Cuba hold “free elections through secret and direct voting.” Pointing to the reforms underway in Eastern Europe, the PPDHC has launched a campaign calling for “the return of a de jure state to the country.” The party’s platform seeks guarantees in Cuba for opposition political parties, independent labor unions, human rights organizations, and the press.

Founded by Ricardo Bofill, and directed since his forced exile in 1988 by poet Tania Díaz, the PPDHC claims some 10,000 members. The party has made known its wish to apply for legal recognition but remains an illegal organization in Cuba, where it nonetheless operates openly.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro has explicitly rejected the changes taking place elsewhere in the communist world, and his regime has stepped up its harassment and suppression of the PPDHC and other dissident groups in recent months. A number of dissidents were jailed for planning demonstrations during Mikhail Gorbachev’s April 1989 visit, and three prominent members of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), including President Elizardo Sanchez, were imprisoned for “spreading false information about international peace” to foreign journalists during last summer’s highly publicized trial of General Arnaldo Ochoa. Unrest has also spread to the universities, where dissent has ranged from defiant graffiti to an open letter—calling Castro a “traitor” and demanding “a deepening of democracy in Cuban society”—to the Communist Youth Union, an act for which four students were jailed. [End Page 133]

These and other abuses were documented in the annual report of the Havana-based Cuban Committee for Human Rights (CCPDH), a group headed by Gustavo and Sebastian Arcos and closely associated with the PPDHC. The report, which was released on January 3 by Ricardo Bofill, the group’s Miami representative, summarizes more than 300 individual accounts of human rights abuses in Cuba, ranging from political detention and imprisonment to religious persecution.

The report was sent to Americas Watch, to Amnesty International, and to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which passed a resolution in early March calling for continued U.N. attention to the human rights situation in Cuba. Several members of the PPDHC, including leader Tania Díaz, wrote to congratulate the commission on the passage of the resolution and were subsequently arrested by the regime on March 10. Castro has said that Cuba will not comply with “a single comma” of the resolution.

CSIS Holds Conference on Democratic Transitions

An important step toward the building of an international democratic community was taken in Costa Rica on January 11-13 with the convening of the fourth annual International Leadership Forum. Fifty men and women from 35 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas were brought together by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to consider the political and economic problems confronting states undergoing democratic transitions.

In his remarks at the opening dinner, President Oscar Arias, the host of the gathering, urged the conferees not to ignore the threat to peace and democracy in the region posed by persistent poverty and inequality. He also reiterated his appeal to the people of Panama to abolish their army and demilitarize the country, as Costa Rica did after its civil war in 1948: “In Costa Rica, without arms we have all the arms we need. Reason compels us to look each other in the face. And so, if one cannot insult or kill one’s brother, one cannot impose the power of the few over the hopes of the many.”

In his keynote address on the U.S. commitment to democracy abroad, Senator Richard Lugar emphasized the role of international election observers in fostering democratic transitions. Other conference speakers included Bronislaw Geremek, chairman of the Solidarity contingent in the Polish Parliament; former Nigerian head of state Olusegun Obasanjo; former Panamanian president Nicolas Ardito-Barletta; and Juan Linz of Yale University.

Among the most prominent of the conference’s recommendations for securing democratic transitions [End Page 134] was the need for civilian, democratic rulers to develop institutional means for controlling and monitoring the military. Its recommendations for international action included a readiness by established democracies to impose costs on countries that depart from the path of democratization, meaningful debt relief to enhance the financial stability of the most vulnerable democracies, and greater international assistance to promote free and fair elections and to aid the rapid development of political parties.

Securing Democratic Transitions, a monograph by conference organizer Brad Roberts summarizing the Forum’s conclusions, recommendations, and discussions, will be available in late spring from CSIS (1800 K Street, N.W., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20006). Research papers prepared for the meeting will be published in the Forum’s newsletter, Vision, and in the summer issue of The Washington Quarterly, both available from CSIS.

Tanzania’s Nyerere Hints At Multiparty Opening

Julius Nyerere, one of postcolonial Africa’s most influential figures and the long-time leader of Tanzania’s one-party regime, has recently suggested that his country consider moving toward a multiparty system. In a February 21 news conference with Tanzanian journalists, Mr. Nyerere said, “Tanzanians should not be dogmatic and think a single party is God’s wish.”

Nyerere, who was president of Tanzania for 25 years until retiring four years ago, retains the chairmanship of the country’s sole legal political party and is still thought to hold the reins of power. His model of one-party “African socialism” guided many of the continent’s new regimes in the years after independence. Tanzania’s economy has performed poorly, however, and dissatisfaction with the governing Revolutionary Party has grown. The party’s leaders, Nyerere said, “are not close to the people. They are closer to their offices and desks.” He added that corruption is now “serious” and “commonplace.”

Tanzania maintained close ties with many of the now-defunct regimes of Eastern Europe. In January, Nyerere visited East Germany, where elite Tanzanian students attended Communist Party schools until they were closed down recently. His remarks at the news conference suggested that events elsewhere had contributed to his reassessment. “If changes take place in Eastern Europe, then other countries with one-party systems and which profess socialism will also be affected,” he said. [End Page 135]


Copyright © 1990 National Endowment for Democracy