Myanmar's new party splits opinion in election debate

A reborn opposition is gearing up to contest Myanmar's elections without democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, but analysts warn the military junta is unlikely to loosen its grip on power anytime soon.

world Updated: Jul 11, 2010 12:08 IST

A reborn opposition is gearing up to contest Myanmar's elections without democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, but analysts warn the military junta is unlikely to loosen its grip on power anytime soon.

Experts welcomed the decision by Myanmar's ruling generals to allow the registration of the new National Democratic Force, which is made up of former members of Suu Kyi's disbanded National League for Democracy.

But they said the splinter group could struggle to fill the NLD's shoes ahead of this year's election, Myanmar's first in 20 years, which is widely feared to be a sham aimed at shoring up the junta's half-century grip on power.

Former Australian ambassador Trevor Wilson said it could be "some years" before the military loosen their stranglehold on Myanmar by implanting trusted figures into a civilian government.

"I have heard them say for years that they are a temporary government," he said. "Now it looks as if they are going to hand power to someone who looks awfully like them, but who is just wearing different coloured clothing."

He said that he is "not optimistic about non-government parties", including the newly registered NDF, adding that the best outcome would be some smaller parties forming a coalition.

Nearly 40 parties have so far been allowed to register for the election, rumoured to be held in October or November. But the NLD will not appear on ballot papers.

It opted to boycott the vote because of rules that would have forced it to expel Suu Kyi, who said she would "never accept" her party registering because the elections laws were "unjust".

But the breakaway NDF has put itself at odds with this decision, urging people to vote and saying the poll could herald change in the country.

Discord between the two camps surfaced recently when former top NLD members accused the NDF of copying their party symbol, a bamboo hat.

But in an interview, NDF chairman Dr Than Nyein said the party would welcome any former NLD members who wanted to participate in the election and vowed to continue Suu Kyi's struggle for democracy.

Political analyst Aung Naing Oo said the group could slowly gain a foothold, but stressed the elections were a "very small step in a long road to democracy".

He said some former NLD members were actively campaigning against the new party by branding them "undemocratic" and urging people not to vote.

But he believes participation was the right choice and forecast that the poll will allow "some sort of civilian participation in politics," allowing people to look at subjects such as health and policy.

"The military has neglected all these issues, they have worked for their own survival," Aung Naing Oo said.

The NDF was welcomed by other opposition groups such as the Democratic Party (Myanmar), whose general secretary Than Than Nu -- daughter of the country's first prime minister, U Nu -- said it added strength to the democracy movement.

But few think the NDF -- or any other opposition group -- could repeat the landslide victory won by Suu Kyi's NLD in 1990, two years after it was formed in response to a popular uprising against the junta that left thousands dead.

The military never allowed the party to take power and Suu Kyi has spent much of the past 20 years in jail or under house arrest.

Former ambassador Wilson said the NLD had "left a great vacuum" that no other party could hope to fill.

"They were the only ones able to pose a serious challenge to the military and I think the military regarded them as that," he said. "I think they were really running away from a challenge."

On the streets of Yangon, one taxi driver said he would vote for the NDF despite confusion about the connections between the parties, but he added that the polls were part of a broader reality in this desperately poor country.

"Whoever comes and governs the country, we do not care, we just need a better standard of living," the 45-year-old said.

First Published: Jul 11, 2010 10:28 IST