Standing Tall or Stepping Down? – ISN

Logo ISN

What now for the opposition in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party refuses to take part in what it deems sham elections being organized by the country’s military dictatorship?

Burma’s main opposition party has refused to take the bait and run in the country’s sham military-run election scheduled for later this year.

Members of the detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party gather at the party's headquarters before its central committee meeting Monday, March. 29, 2010, in Rangoon. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

“Without any objections, all the party leaders reached a consensus not to register the party and join the election because the junta’s election laws are unjust,” said senior party official Khin Maung Swe yesterday. The decision came days after the party’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi voiced her opposition to the National League for Democracy (NLD) taking part, however adding that she would leave the final decision to a party vote.

While nobody ever expected a free and fair election in Burma, the regime made doubly-sure with some Machiavellian electoral laws published a few weeks ago. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, would have had to expel its leader if it wanted to take part.

John Dale teaches at George Mason University and is an analyst of Burma’s domestic politics. He reminded ISN Security Watch that “the new election laws make clear that the 2010 elections will not be democratic because they restrict from participation at the outset the very candidates who legitimately won the previous elections that the military refused to honor. Therefore, “many defenders of Burma’s democracy are concluding that these elections will be even less fair than those of 1990.”

Confusion and division

The prospect of an election has caused division among the opposition and the various ethnic groups living in the borderlands near China, Thailand, India and Bangladesh. Sixty percent of the country is ethnic Burman, with the remainder split among over 130 different ethnic groups – the Chin, Karen, Mon and Shan among the most numerous. Many of these have been at war with the junta, on and off, since the end of World War II, while the Muslim Rohingya in the west are denied citizenship, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to squalor and abuse in Bangladesh and beyond.

Ethnic parties are being set up to take part in the election, despite exhortations from mainstream ethnic leaders to boycott the polls. This comes after years of ‘divide and rule’ military campaigns, where the junta set up proxy militias drawn from the ethnic minorities to fight against their own kin. Last June, thousands of Karen fled to Thailand after an attack by the Democratic Buddhist Karen Army (DBKA), backed by the army, ostensibly on the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), but also on civilians.

Some of the pro-participation groups are doubtless fronts for the regime, while others may be genuinely confused about what to do, and some have already committed to running. The military will automatically be given 25 percent of seats in the parliament, as per the 2008 constitution, which the opposition wants revised before it will take part.

Reversing 1990

Prior to the last election held in Burma in 1990, the NLD was unsure whether or not to take part, but ended up with a landslide win – a pyrrhic victory which was overturned by the regime. It seems unlikely that the junta will be as complacent as it was in 1990, when it expected its front party to win easily. This time, buoyed by massive oil and gas revenues and strong commercial-diplomatic links with China, India and Southeast Asia, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a mass membership ‘civil society’ organization run by the army, is likely to run as a political party, possibly fronted by current Prime Minister General Thein Sein.

Aung Din is executive director of the US Campaign for Burma. He told ISN Security Watch that “most of the parties that the Commission will allow to run will be the pro-junta or military-affiliated organizations. As the regime has to get the majority of the 75 percent contested seats in the Parliaments to be able to secure the president position for … Gen Than Shwe (the current military dictator), they will not allow any party to disturb their plot.”

Without the NLD, will anyone be able to generate the appeal or critical mass necessary to upset the regime’s plan to launder dictatorship into democracy?

Win Min teaches at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. He points to the Democratic Party led by U Thu Wai as a possible non-regime alternative; however, it is difficult to see any party coming close to challenging the status quo, given the restrictive electoral laws and massive resources available to the junta.

Eternal optimism

The optimist’s argument goes something along the lines of the following: If the vote can be somewhat fair, parties can get some seats in the parliament, and the system may open up – from outright dictatorship now to a ‘softer’ liberal authoritarianism after the elections. Refusing to take part would mean dissolution of the party – a fate which the NLD has apparently consigned itself to – and being frozen out of the military-dominated political process.

Dr Maung Zarni is research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics. Dismissing some of the panglossian interpretations of what the elections could mean for his country, he told ISN Security Watch that “anyone who doubts that the elections are about the generals’ attempt to hold onto power eternally – they use the word ‘eternal’ in the Burmese language version of the constitution – doesn’t really know what he or she is talking about.”

There seems to have been significant international hopes – some would say wishful thinking – that the regime would stage a somewhat clean election, and that the NLD would take part, lending some credibility to the process.

But the NLD’s decision on Monday to boycott the elections might change the game. The NLD may give heart to others opposing the vote – particularly among ethnic minorities now threatened by renewed war from the Burmese army.

If the country follows the NLD and ignores the elections, and if people take a stand against voting, the regime might end up with a low turnout, or be forced to stuff ballots and stage a turnout for a contest between a variety of army parties and regime cronies.

Follow us on Twitter
, ,