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ASEAN holds tongue on Burma election. What options remain for Suu Kyi?

During this week's ASEAN summit, Asian leaders fell short of criticizing the rules that ban Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from participating in the upcoming Burma election. But hope remains for moderate voices.

By Correspondent / April 8, 2010

Bangkok, Thailand

Military-ruled Burma (Myan­mar) is preparing to hold elections this year, its first since 1990. But the party that won the majority of seats then, a result later annulled, has refused to participate in protest at the regime's election rules.

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Since announcing its decision in March, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, now faces dissolution after May 7, the deadline to register for the Burma election.

At a summit Wednesday and Thursday in Hanoi, foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) fell short of urging Burma to to modify election laws to allow Ms. Suu Kyi to participate. More than 100 regional legislators had called for ASEAN to help ensure a free and fair election. Singapore's foreign minister said foreign ministers met with their Burmese counterpart and made "observations and suggestions," though the bloc held to its policy of noninterference.

The NLD's boycott puts Western powers in a bind as well. Last year the Obama administration switched to a policy of engaging the regime, which has proved impervious to economic and political pressure. But the United States and other powers remain critical of any political process that doesn't involve the NLD and its charismatic leader, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has spent 14 of the past 20 years in detention.

Why did the NLD decide to boycott the election?

The party said the rules governing the election were unfair and that it would be wrong to participate. A sticking point was a ban on prisoners joining or founding political parties. This applies to Suu Kyi, who is serving an 18-month sentence that lasts until November. To register for the vote, the NLD would have had to expel Suu Kyi. More than 2,100 other political prisoners are also excluded.

Party members were also reluctant to lend legitimacy to an election that they believe won't be free or fair.

Some members wanted to contest, believing that a flawed vote is better than nothing and may pave the way to semidemocratic rule, says a Western diplomat who covers Burma. On a recent visit, a senior NLD official told him that "he had the numbers." But the party's committee fell in line after Suu Kyi spoke out against participation.

How has the party's decision been received?

Many analysts are critical of the NLD's opt-out, given the long wait for elections and the frustration of ordinary Burmese with the current standoff. The party's popularity stems from its victory in 1990 and its resistance to the regime's unpopular policies. By not running in the elections, the party robs Burma's 27 million voters of a credible choice, argue observers.