When Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), decided unanimously on March 29 to boycott the national and regional elections set to take place late this year, it may well have signed its own death warrant.
The nation’s military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), gave the NLD little choice. The junta had announced a raft of election laws that all parties had to accept if they wanted to take part in the polls. The laws annulled the results of Burma’s last elections, in 1990, in which the NLD won more than 80 percent of contested seats. The SPDC also banned people with criminal convictions from belonging to political parties–an obvious attempt to stop thousands of jailed dissidents, including NLD leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, from standing. And the NLD would have been required to accept a constitution that guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in all legislatures. These were restrictions the party could not accept.
The NLD decision to boycott means that it will no longer legally exist after May 7. Its offices will be closed, its equipment confiscated, and it will more than likely be banned by the regime. On April 3 NLD members in the central Burmese city of Mandalay reported that their offices had already been forced to shut down.
The absence of the NLD will leave a huge vacuum in the country’s political opposition. Since the party was formed in 1988, it has been an integral opposition force not only symbolically, with Suu Kyi as its leader, but also at the grassroots level. While the NLD will continue to have public support, the boycott has robbed the party of a voice, no matter how limited its influence may have been. Its absence from the political landscape will help the regime, as the field of candidates will narrow and millions of prodemocracy voters will be left without a party to support.
In recent days NLD members have met to discuss the future of the opposition. The decisions they make over the next few weeks will be crucial as they attempt to retain some vestiges of power. Party officials have confirmed that NLD members are considering the possibility of forming a coalition with ethnic opposition parties that are also boycotting the polls, including the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD) and the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), the second- and third-largest parties after the NLD, respectively.
Exiled NLD spokesman Nyo Ohn Myint said, "We have a very difficult situation. We cannot destroy our mandate from the people in the 1990 elections, but at the same time, we also have many agendas to work on with the people. We are not just closing the door to working things out [with the regime]. We will fight for the political space…. We will pressure [the regime] by joining with the ethnic groups."
SNLD spokesman Sai Leik and ALD general secretary Aye Tha Aung said they had not ruled out the possibility of forming a coalition with the NLD.
The role ethnic opposition parties occupy in Burma should not be underestimated. While the NLD has been the main player and many ethnic parties have looked to it for support, ethnic parties have been crucial in mobilizing opposition to the regime. The NLD has also worked closely with opposition parties, not least in setting up the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament, a largely symbolic multiethnic coalition of opposition parties. But even if a new alliance is created, any influence it wields would be severely limited, as there is no guarantee the SPDC will not ban it or prevent it from participating in the elections.