Main Opposition to Boycott Myanmar Election
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New York Times – Thomas Fuller –
Published: March 29, 2010
Members of the National League for Democracy said Monday that they would not register to vote after they met in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city.
BANGKOK — After months of internal debate, members of the party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-detained pro-democracy leader, defied Myanmar’s junta by announcing Monday that they would boycott the country’s first elections in two decades.
The move raises questions about both the future of the Burmese opposition and the credibility of the vote.
According to election laws the junta released earlier this month, the decision means that the party that has served as the mainstay of the country’s democratic movement for two decades, the National League for Democracy, will be automatically dissolved. Western governments, including the United States and Britain, had said that Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation and that of her party were prerequisites for legitimate elections.
On Monday, U Win Tin, a founding member and strategist for the party, said that more than 100 delegates were unanimous in their decision. “We will ask the people around us not to vote in the election: Please boycott,” he said in a telephone interview. He said that the party would try to continue political activities after it is disbanded. “We will work for the people,” he said.
The party had been split over whether to participate in the elections, forced to choose between participation that would undercut its principles and a boycott that would dissolve it. Last week, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi said through a spokesman that she viewed the election process as “unjust” and that she felt that the party should not take part.
“They made a decision to maintain their dignity,” said Win Min, a lecturer in contemporary Burmese politics at Payap University in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. “They wanted to keep Aung San Suu Kyi as their leader. On the other hand, what is their alternative after this?”
Mr. Win Min said the National League for Democracy would likely be disbanded by May 6, a deadline set in the election laws. The party’s assets, including offices, might be seized. “Some members may be planning to set up a new party,” Mr. Win Min said.
The ruling generals portray the vote as part of a “roadmap” to democracy after 48 years of military rule, while diplomats and exile groups view it as window-dressing for the junta’s continued hold on power.
But some inside Myanmar say they believe the elections offer at least a modest positive step.
In recent months the military government has announced nascent liberalization measures that they see as possibly the beginning of a decentralization of power. The measures include issuing permits for private hospitals and schools and allowing private-sector management of the rice industry.
But the counterpoint to these economic measures is the consistently hard line that the military has taken with the political force it considers its archenemy, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, 64, and her followers. Her party won a landslide victory in 1990, a result that was ignored by the ruling generals and officially nullified just this month.
The party has been weakened by two decades of harassment, intimidation and imprisonment of many of its members, including Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and Mr. Win Tin. The party’s leaders are aging — Mr. Win Tin is 81 — and the membership has dwindled.
Among many restrictive measures in the election law, criminal convictions bar candidacy. This includes Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and Mr. Win Tin among the estimated 2,100 political prisoners in the country, many of whom were leaders of protest movements in 1988 and 2007 and form the core of the country’s democracy movement.
Taking part in a new election would also have been a signal to people in Myanmar that the National League for Democracy had agreed to forgo its 1990 victory, Mr. Win Tin said. “We would have to give up all of our political convictions,” he said.
The party also wanted to send a signal to armed ethnic groups in the northern reaches of the country that the election was illegitimate. The junta is demanding that the ethnic groups disarm.
“A sort of civil war will flare up very soon,” Mr. Win Tin predicted.
Mr. Win Tin urged countries in Asia and the West to threaten to withhold aid to the junta. “Please put more pressure on the government,” he said. “That is my message.”
Mr. Win Tin, who wrote poetry during his nearly two decades in prison, used a concoction of water and red dust from the bricks of his cell to write his verses. He was denied pen and paper in the infamously brutal prison system.
Today, he said he is followed by military intelligence whenever he leaves the house. Agents were outside on motorcycle as he spoke to this reporter, he said.
“For me it’s as if I were still in prison,” he said. “I feel like the whole country is imprisoned,” he said.
Voice of America
William Ide | Washington29 March 2010
The U.S. State Department on Monday blamed Burma’s military government for the opposition’s decision to boycott upcoming elections. The United States called the situation in Burma “disappointing,” but added that Washington will continue its efforts to engage Rangoon.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the United States “understands and respects the decision” by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, or NLD, to not to participate in elections that are expected to be held later this year.
Crowley called the situation “regrettable.” He pointed to the military government’s unwillingness to open up the political process to key figures and various ethnic groups in Burma as the reason for the NLD’s decision to withdraw.
“We think that that this is an opportunity lost in terms of Burma’s ability to demonstrate that it is willing to contemplate a different course of action, a different relationship with its own people and other groups within its own borders,” said Philip Crowley.
The United States calls Burma’s election rules a “mockery” of the democratic process. Many other countries have criticized Rangoon’s election planning as deeply flawed and unfair.
Crowley said the U.S. government will continue to reach out to Burmese leaders, despite Rangoon’s decision on the course of the elections.
Burma’s election laws prohibit registered parties from having criminals in their ranks. The NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under detention for 14 of the last 20 years, and many of her party’s officials have been held as political prisoners.
The election laws also require parties to swear allegiance to the 2008 Constitution, which guarantees the military a quarter of parliamentary seats regardless of election results.
The NLD’s announcement on Monday to boycott the elections, came after more than 100 members of the party gathered at its Rangoon headquarters. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, had urged the NLD not to participate in the voting, saying that the election laws are unjust.
David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown University here in Washington, says the NLD might split because of the decision it was forced to make.
“The NLD was in a very very difficult position because either to participate means that they intentionally gave up their claim to legitimacy based upon the May 1990 elections, but to not to participate means that they are moved to the political periphery,” said David Steinberg.
The National League for Democracy won Burma’s last elections in 1990, but the military refused to give up power. Burma’s government has yet to announce a date for the upcoming elections.
Steinberg says he believes the military government is prepared to have opposition members in its new legislature. But he notes that those voices will not be able to control critical issues the country faces.
Steinberg says the Burmese government needs the opposition to boost its credibility at home and abroad.
“Just the fact of the NLD not being in it [i.e., the elections] does not mean there will not be other opposition parties,”he said. “They are already being formed as we speak here, and how credible they will be and how successful they will be, will be a question.”
According to Burma’s election rules, all political parties have until the first week of May to register. If they do not, they will be dissolved.
The Associated Press (AP) –
Senior members of the detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party attend the party’s central committee meeting at the party’s headquarters Monday, March. 29, 2010, in Yangon, Myanmar. The party was meeting Monday to decide whether to participate in the first election in military-ruled Myanmar in two decades, the party spokesman said. A senior party member called it “a life-or-death” decision. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)
Members of the detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party prepare to serve bananas to members of the party before its central committee meeting at the party’s headquarters Monday, March. 29, 2010, in Yangon, Myanmar. The party was meeting Monday to decide whether to participate in the first election in military-ruled Myanmar in two decades, the party spokesman said. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)
Members of the detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party stand behind a gate as they wait to serve lunch meals and bananas to members of the party before its central committee meeting at the party’s headquarters Monday, March. 29, 2010, in Yangon, Myanmar. The party was meeting Monday to decide whether to participate in the first election in military-ruled Myanmar in two decades, the party spokesman said. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)
A member of the detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party gestures to show her opposition against the election as she sits outside the party’s headquarters Monday, March. 29, 2010, in Yangon, Myanmar. The party was meeting Monday to decide whether to participate in the first election in military-ruled Myanmar in two decades, the party spokesman said. A senior party member called it “a life-or-death” decision. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)
YANGON, Myanmar — Many residents of Myanmar’s largest city Tuesday greeted a decision by the party of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to boycott elections with rousing approval but others blamed it for leaving them with little choice in the military-organized balloting.
In a bold gamble, the National League for Democracy on Monday decided to opt out of the country’s first election in two decades, following the lead of the detained Nobel Prize laureate who had earlier denounced the laws guiding the election as undemocratic.
The decision, approved by an unanimous vote of the 113 executive members, spotlights the question of the polls’ credibility. The NLD won the most parliamentary seats in the last election in 1990, whose results the military refused to honor.
“It is devastating that the NLD has chosen to boycott the election. Who should I vote for when the election comes?” said a 46-year-old university teacher Myint Myint Thein.
But others approved of the decision.
“(Suu Kyi) is our icon and our leader and she is the only person who can reflect the feelings of the public. We are with her and we support her decision,” said a 55-year-old nurse, Khin Zaw.
The NLD earlier denounced the election laws, noting their provisions would bar Suu Kyi from participating, or even being a member of the party she helped found 22 years ago in the wake of a failed popular uprising against military rule.
“We will continue to pursue, through peaceful means, democracy and human rights with support, understanding and assistance from the people, ethnic nationalities and democratic forces,” said party vice chairman Tin Oo.
Although the boycott will probably mean the end of the NLD since parties who fail to register for the election are to be dissolved, the boycott could also undermine the junta’s claims that the election represents a step forward in its “roadmap for democracy.”
“The majority of the people will follow the decision because of their deep respect for (Suu Kyi), and the legitimacy and credibility of the elections will be thoroughly undermined,” said Thakin Chan Tun, a retired ambassador and veteran politician.
The election date has yet to be announced, and the lineup of the contesting parties is still unclear. But it appears the military will field a party against a number of small ones, some of them pro-military.
“I think the NLD has made a major blunder by not contesting in the election. We are all set to vote for NLD candidates and now we are left without any choice,” said Mie Mie, a jewelry shop owner.
Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, general-secretary of the recently formed Democratic Party, said the best way to serve the people and country was to get as many opposition seats as possible in the new parliament.
The reaction of the international community, which has already expressed doubt over the fairness of the polls, could be crucial in determining whether the election will proceed smoothly. The junta hopes holding the vote will ease pressure for political reforms and accommodation with the country’s pro-democracy movement.
At the same time, the party risks being further marginalized. It has been the focal point for opposition to military rule, even though it has faced fierce repression. If it loses its status as a legal party, it may face tighter restrictions.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that U.S. officials “understand and respect” the NLD decision. “This is a reflection of the unwillingness of the government in Burma to take what we thought were the necessary steps to open up the political process and to engage in serious dialogue,” Crowley said.