In a bold gamble, the party of Myanmar's detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has decided to boycott the military-ruled country's first election in two decades, saying it would carry on its struggle for democracy even if it was officially disbanded.
The decision by the National League for Democracy, approved by an unanimous vote of the 113 executive members present at an all-day meeting Monday, 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. The party said new laws guiding the election are undemocratic. 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.
The boycott could undermine the junta's claims that the election represents a step forward in its "roadmap for democracy." 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.
A call to revoke the country's 2008 constitution, pushed though by the military to ensure its influence under an elected government, also puts it in jeopardy of laws against criticism of the charter. "It is a great pity that they've opted out to participate. I could understand why they would have done this, because of the adversity they have to face. But it would be a great loss to Burma and the Burmese people," said Trevor Wilson, a Myanmar expert at Australian National University. Burma is the former name for Myanmar.
"This may prove quite significant for NLD's future," he said. "Because of this, they may not be as productive or as valuable to Burmese politics as they had in the past."
US State Department spokesman PJ 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. Cheering could be heard from the delegates after they reached their decision and concluded their meeting. Officially, the party decided it would not register itself, the first legal step to taking part in the polls.
Earlier, a message from Suu Kyi was read to the delegates, explaining her position. Suu Kyi is still general-secretary of the party and its most dominant figure. The pro-democracy icon has spent 14 of the last 20 years in jail or under house arrest. Party spokesman Nyan Win told reporters afterward the party should not take part in the polls because new electoral laws were "unjust and biased" and the stipulations "undemocratic." Nyan Win did not elaborate, but the party had previously objected to a provision of the party registration law that requires parties to expel members who have criminal convictions, or face de-registration.
Because Suu Kyi was convicted last year of allowing an unregistered guest to stay at her home, the provision would appear not to allow her to be a member of the National League for Democracy, which she helped found.
"In her message to the people, she said she will continue to work for the achievement of democracy," said Nyan Win, quoting her saying, "I don't consider the party finished if the party is dissolved."
The new election laws require political parties to register before the first week in May. Parties that do not register will not be able to participate in this year's election and will cease to exist.
No date has been set for the polls, which many critics deride as a sham designed to cement the power of the military. Last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said key nations want Myanmar's government to give its people the opportunity to participate freely in upcoming elections _ including political prisoners and Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. He spoke after a meeting of the Group of Friends of Myanmar to discuss the country's new electoral laws.
The group includes about 15 countries, including Myanmar's neighbors, interested Asian and European nations, and the five permanent UN Security Council members: the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France. Ban said the group believes inclusive elections are necessary to advance the prospects of stability, democracy and development in the country.
"The government must create conditions that give all stakeholders the opportunity to participate freely in elections," Ban said. "This includes the release of all political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and respect for fundamental freedoms."