The ageing members of Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, may have woken up on Tuesday morning and quietly reflected how it had all come to this.
Confronted with the choice of taking part in an election the NLD said would be unjust — based, as it is, on a constitution approved in a "sham" referendum and with election laws seemingly designed to keep their leader from running — or disappearing completely, senior members yesterday voted for the latter.
Not allowed to form a government after overwhelmingly winning an election in 1990, their leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, confined to her house for most of the past 20 years, and offices around the country shuttered and then demolished: the NLD’s crusade for Western-style democracy has been one challenge after another.
But, through it all, they continued to be a thorn in the side of Burma’s ruling generals and captured the imagination, and support, of people around the globe.
Now the party is on the verge of extinction. Election laws released earlier this month decree that existing parties like the NLD have 60 days to decide whether or not to contest an election planned for later this year.
One key condition stipulates that parties are not allowed to have "convicts" — defined as those serving a prison term — among their members. To contest would, in effect, mean denying membership to Aung San Suu Kyi and to hundreds of other political prisoners, and annul the results of the 1990 election. (Aung San Suu Kyi was in August sentenced to 18 months detention for giving shelter to a US man who, believing he was on a mission from God, swam uninvited to her lakeside compound.)
Existing parties that opt not to contest this year’s general election will be deregistered.
"After a vote of the committee of members, the NLD party has decided not to register as a political party because the election laws are unjust," party spokesperson U Nyan Win told Reuters.
The decision was not unexpected — but still marks an important juncture in Burma’s transition to a "discipline-flourishing democracy"; a process that began more than 20 years ago, following street protests that ended in a deadly crackdown by the military.
While the party’s leaders could have been more flexible in their dealings with the intractable junta, there’s no denying that its members have been harassed, persecuted and in some cases — like the Depayin massacre in 2003 — outright attacked by the military.
"We have sacrificed our life for 20 years and finally we have to give up like this. So you can imagine how we feel in our hearts," Nann Khin Htwe Mying, a senior NLD member who arrived for the talks from eastern Karen state, told AFP.
Members reportedly broke into applause after the vote. A moral victory, I suppose, but one that achieves little.
The Burmese people will head to the polls later this year without the NLD’s participation. The party’s refusal to compromise has left the Burmese people with one less option on polling day — and the junta with less to worry about.
Other parties will be looking to fill the breach in the NLD’s absence. The most promising, perhaps, is the Democratic Party, led by a former political prisoner. Senior members include the daughters of two former prime ministers from the post-WWII period, when Burma briefly experimented with democracy.
The Democratic Party has been dubbed the "third force" by western media: it’s a bridge between the military and its proxy parties and the uncompromising NLD. The party plans to contest every constituency and the profile of its leaders will no doubt be of significant assistance on polling day — just as it was for the NLD 20 years ago.
Several other groups are also looking to raise their profile in these elections. Union Democratic Alliance Party chairman U Shwe Ohn told local media recently that "co-operation, rather than confrontation" with the generals was required to move the country forward. (Asia Times Online earlier this week published an excellent overview of recent political developments in Burma.)
There are also parties more closely aligned to the Government, such as the Union of Myanmar National Political Force. The party’s leader, U Aye Lwin, was recently embroiled in scandal when a letter requesting funding from the government was published by dissident groups. Under the new election laws, it is illegal for a party to receive funding from the government or from abroad.
I can’t speak for Burmese people and I don’t pretend to know their intentions.
But I do believe many are looking forward to the opportunity of voting and at least having a small say — for the first time in 20 years — in the country’s future.
Very few people I know plan to boycott the election, and I’ve certainly seen little evidence that Aung San Suu Kyi is "the only person most Burmese are interested in voting for", as Richard Lloyd Parry argued in The Australian recently.
Chief among the priorities of those with whom I’ve discussed the election is economic development. Burma is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia but has a great deal of potential for growth, particularly if its large cache of natural resources, which include gas, gems and timber, can be harnessed.
While most people, especially in rural areas, have a limited knowledge of democracy, they understand — from looking over the border to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore — that it is usually accompanied by an improvement in living standards. When you’re struggling to afford more than one meal a day, improving your economic position — rather than the democratic process — is a primary concern.
For the NLD, the way forward is bleak but the party can still play a positive role in Burma’s transition to democracy. There is a strong possibility that the party’s less hardline elements will accept the military’s election regulations and form a new party. Older and more established names will continue to be outspoken critics of the generals and thus help keep Burma in the spotlight.
This possibility was raised in a message from Aung San Suu Kyi — who was reportedly against participating in the election — that was read out to NLD members before the vote here in Yangon yesterday.
"If the NLD is dissolved, one cannot assume the NLD will deteriorate," she said.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.