The largest opposition party in Burma (Myanmar) said Monday it won’t contest military-run elections later this year, a move that under controversial election laws could lead to its breakup.
The decision by the National League for Democracy (NLD), whose leader Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest, came after a party meeting in Rangoon (Yangon). Spokesman Nyan Win told reporters that members had voted not to participate because “the election laws are unjust,” Reuters reported.
The NLD has been gripped by divisions over the logic of an election boycott, which is punishable by party dissolution. Some activists argued that staying out of the political process was futile, while others insisted that capitulation to an undemocratic ballot was wrong.
Monday’s decision wasn’t a surprise, as Ms. Suu Kyi was recently quoted as saying she was personally opposed to participation but would allow the party to decide for itself. The Nobel Peace laureate, who led the NLD to victory in a 1990 poll that was later annulled, is considered untouchable by many party members.
Cramping Western engagement
The Obama administration has sought to engage with Burma’s military rulers while maintaining longstanding sanctions. It has also strongly criticized a 2008 Constitution and the laws governing the election, expected to be held in October or November.
Among the rules laid down by the junta is a ban on prisoners joining political parties, which excludes Suu Kyi and more than 2,100 other political detainees. Monks and civil servants are also banned. Parties have until May 7 to register for the election or face dissolution.
Dozens of new and existing parties are expected to contest elections overseen by a military-appointed commission. But the exclusion of the NLD, even by its own hand, may drive a wedge between Western powers and Asian countries keen to strengthen ties to Burma and willing to give a passing grade to a flawed election.
“It will be difficult for the US and the West to engage with Burma on this issue,” says Aung Naing Oo, an exiled Burmese analyst in Chiang Mai, Thailand, who has urged the NLD to participate in the elections.
A ‘principled stance’
Advocates of an election boycott reject the argument that civilian rule is a first step toward democracy, even if the vote is imperfect. They argue that the NLD and other democrats will be emasculated in a parliament in which military proxies and appointed generals will control the levers.
In a commentary in the Irrawaddy, an exile-run publication, Dr. Zarni, a dissident based in Bangkok, compared participation to the abdication in 1885 of King Thibaw, Burma’s last sovereign, at colonial Britain’s behest.
“The political process ‘on offer’ by Burma's ruling military junta is deeply one-sided, harmful to the country's interests … so much so that anyone who cares about the country's future should stiffen the spine and take a realistic and principled stance against the ‘election,’ ” he wrote.
Even if the NLD stays out, some members may chose to set up alternative parties or lend support to other allied parties. But they could find themselves coming in conflict with other NLD factions that want to enforce the boycott, says Aung Naing Oo.
He warns that other activists frustrated by the junta’s glacial path to democracy may take a more radical approach, despite the odds stacked against them. “My biggest worry is a possible confrontation with the military. That could come soon,” he says.