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.
Though no formal date has been set for the elections, they will be the nation’s first return to the ballot box in two decades. The polls could have been used as a platform to initiate concrete progress toward democracy and greater devolution of power to the country’s diverse ethnic communities. But as the regime’s recent election laws illustrate, it’s clear that won’t happen. Many analysts and Western officials, including in the United States and Britain, have condemned the electoral process as a foregone conclusion designed to help the SPDC consolidate its hold on power. The United States has blamed the junta’s policies for the NLD boycott.
But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley has said in recent weeks that Washington will continue its policy of trying to engage with the SPDC despite the US failure to persuade the regime to make the elections more inclusive.
Only last week, at a Hanoi summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations–of which Burma is a member–the issue of Burma’s elections overshadowed the agenda. Member nations issued a strongly worded statement urging the regime to allow "fair" elections in which all parties are allowed to stand.
So far, nineteen parties have registered to stand in the polls–a step they see as necessary to fight for their ethnic rights. The SPDC is also expected to register its own party in the coming weeks.
The junta remains wary of the huge public support the NLD commands and its ability to mobilize mass protests. Sources have confirmed that senior SPDC officials held an emergency meeting on March 31 in the capital, Naypyidaw, to discuss its response to the NLD boycott. The regime’s reaction will more than likely align with its increasingly repressive rule in recent years. The scale of the NLD victory twenty years ago shocked the junta, and this time it has sought to ensure the elections progress trouble-free. More than 2,200 ordinary people, Buddhist monks, nuns and opposition activists have been detained in the past several years, according to research by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a Thailand-based NGO.
Many ethnic insurgent groups have also been threatened or coaxed into signing cease-fire agreements and becoming government-controlled border security forces–in effect, proxy armies. Analysts predict that cease-fire groups that refuse to become border security forces could be attacked by the army–a step that will almost inevitably lead to a return to armed conflict.
It will be Burma’s 50 million people who will bear the brunt of this mess. Almost half a century of authoritarian rule has been pockmarked by state repression and economic mismanagement. The dire state of the country’s economy, along with widespread human rights abuses, led to mass protests in Burma in 1988 and 2007, as ordinary people struggled to make ends meet. The average Burmese person earns a little over a dollar a day–GDP per capita is around $400. Meanwhile, the regime spends around $330 million a year on its military–more than four times the amount it invests annually on education and healthcare combined, according to economists. The SPDC has made no pre-election statements suggesting that its policies are likely to change.
In the run-up to the elections, the junta will have to exert the right amount of repression while making sure its tactics do not lead to widespread unrest and armed conflict. This is a delicate balancing act, but the SPDC has had plenty of practice over the years and has become adept. The NLD, which has few political options left, is facing one of the biggest hurdles in its history armed with little more than the moral high ground and the knowledge that it has enough influence to bring millions of Burmese to the streets and lead a nationwide boycott of the polls. Despite this, the harsh truth is that the military regime is the only real power in Burma–and it will not relent. As the deadlock continues, the suffering for Burma’s people will go on.