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.

Soe Zeya tun/Reuters
Junta Chief Gen. Than Shwe has aimed to divide Burma’s opposition. His foreign minister was quizzed on the upcoming Burma election during this week's meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, though the bloc fell short of criticizing the junta's human rights record or efforts to bloc Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from participating.

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.

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.

The prospect of a legal breakup of the party is alarming, says Aung Naing Oo, an exiled Burmese analyst in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Despite decades of repression, the NLD has remained intact. "It's better to participate. The NLD isn't an underground organization," he says.

The Irrawaddy, a publication edited by Burmese exiles in Thailand, said in a critical online editorial that the boycott may rob the election of its legitimacy in Western eyes. "But even if this does turn out to be the case, it may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory at best."

What happens now to the election, and is it expected to bring change?

The elections will go ahead, probably in October or November. As many as 15 parties have registered, with more expected. Some parties are seen as military fronts, while others are vehicles for influential businesspeople close to the junta.

Pro-democracy parties have also formed and may gain quiet support from NLD activists unhappy with the boycott. That runs the risk of upsetting a military-appointed election commission, which has the power to vet candidates.

In the 1990 election, the NLD won 82 percent of the seats. Analysts expect a more fragmented distribution this time.

Whatever the lineup, nobody expects an easy transition to civilian rule after nearly five decades of military regimes. "It's going to be a predictable result. The question is, are you going to get some good people into a position where they have some influence," says the Western diplomat.

How has the regime responded to the boycott?

The junta has made no official reaction to the NLD's decision. But it has reason to feel pleased, says Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and former United Nations official. (He is the grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant.)

He says the regime probably anticipated the boycott and will now feel more confident. "A decision by the NLD to participate in the elections would have placed the regime in a far more difficult position," he says.

Western countries have called repeatedly for inclusive elections and for all political prisoners to be released. Britain said that by excluding Suu Kyi, the regime had "squandered the opportunity for national reconciliation." The US also criticized the regime over its election laws.

What options does the NLD have?

Some NLD activists may throw their weight behind other parties. A breakaway group could register a new party, but this would inflame hard-liners.

A low turnout would be embarrassing for the regime. But the military can compel people to vote, as they did in a 2008 constitutional referendum where the official turnout was 98 percent, says Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher for Amnesty International in Bangkok. By opting out, he says, the NLD "has taken a huge gamble. It's the most high-profile opposition group in the country." Should voters ignore its stance and go to the polls, its clout would have shrunk, despite the abiding popularity of Suu Kyi, among the world's most famous political prisoners.

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