Life or death for Suu Kyi’s party?

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Special to The Japan Times

The incumbent regime in Myanmar is asking all interest groups, until Thursday, to form political parties and register within 60 days. All unregistered parties will cease to exist under the new election laws. The National League for Democracy (NLD) party has openly boycotted the election laws, and has decided to pursue civil action when the regime abolishes it. Some people view this as courageous, but this decision is shortsighted and irresponsible.

I have just finished graduate study in foreign studies at Tokyo University at the age of 64, going nearly $50,000 in debt, but I have found the knowledge gained from the experience worthwhile. Change is in the wind but not in the way that Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues would like.

Whether the world believes it or not, Myanmar is heading for democracy, but the transition will take time. The new form of parliamentary dictatorship could, initially, replace the military dictatorship with the incumbent regime’s proxies at the helm alongside limited liberalizations that will eventually open up opportunities toward political democracy in the end.

It is too naive to expect a fair and just democratic election under the strong, cohesive and resourceful military government. That never happens anywhere in the world where such military regimes exist. The Myanmar military is talking about democracy for the future while ruling with terror at present — as Guillermo O’Donnell and C. Philippe Schmitter have pointed out in their 1986 book, “Transition from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions About Uncertain Democracies.”

However, other military regimes have become democracies in the past. Look at how Chile changed from the ruthless Pinochet dictatorship to its present democratic government. Most of the Chilean opposition parties initially opposed Pinochet’s constitution in 1980, but most of them accepted it near the end of 1986 after they failed to find alternatives. The opposition won the plebiscite by majority three years later and ruled the country under Pinochet’s constitution. Chile has amended its undemocratic constitution over the past 16 years whenever it saw the political opportunity to do so and reached full democracy in 2005.

Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues have suffered much abuse and confinement. But just having the courage to bear and confront the oppression cannot define the leadership. Politics is never static.

I won’t say the Myanmar military regime is likable or desirable, but the opposition has yet to put their feet in its shoes. To safeguard the lives of its leaders and their wealth, the oppressive regime is more determined than ever not to yield to the demands of opponents.

The West has isolated and punished the regime with various sanctions and humiliations, but not the rest of the world. China and Russia protected it while providing necessary assistance. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is ineffective, as many of the nine members (besides Myanmar) have their own problems, and the statutes of the organization have limitations.

Under this international reality, the Myanmar opposition must consider reversing their previous decision to boycott the election and party registration before the deadline. It should not forget and abandon the people who gave it an overwhelming mandate in the 1990 election, though the military regime nullified the election result.

If Chilean main opposition parties were able to accept and cooperate with the Pinochet dictatorial regime, why not NLD with the Than Shwe military regime? The Democratic Alliance in Chile didn’t abandon the people, but brought them along to democracy in the end. NLD must seriously think about it.

Of course, accepting the regime’s electoral laws mean abandoning Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners. However, the chance will come in the future to reinstate most of them in the party. Ousting Suu Kyi from the party is not something new, and forbidding her to participate in the election isn’t the first time either. The military regime had used Article 74(a) of the 1947 Constitution — written by her father Aung San and his council before he was assassinated — to exclude Suu Kyi from the 1990 election. The regime uses its own constitution to bar her not only from elections but also from party membership.

Whether those restrictions are right or wrong, they will be decided eventually by the Myanmar people. At present, the Myanmar people have no such rights; therefore, the safe way for the party to survive and share a big chunk of the electoral seats is to comply with the existing laws, especially since no one can change them effectively.

NLD still has ample chance to win a majority of seats, but by boycotting the election and allowing the party to be branded an outlaw means abandoning the people. Working outside of party politics and achieving democracy through social works and civil resistance under present conditions in Myanmar is a daydream. NLD should be more pragmatic.

There are many other parties that registered with the election committee, including ethnic-based parties. Whether the West recognizes it or not, the election is likely to be held by yearend. Accusing non-NLD politicians of being unreliable, unpatriotic, corruptible and opportunist is groundless and undemocratic. The Myanmar people desire a change as they are fed up with the military dictatorship.

The new government will be a quasi-civilian one, working together with civilian politicians and soldiers. We can expect certain political opportunities to open up from time to time to make the government more democratic. The mutual trust now lacking between the military regime and civil politicians can only be developed by engagement. This is the only option we have now.

Of course, participation by NLD will give the military regime more credibility, but it doesn’t care much about that. If NLD were dismantled without a proxy party left behind, then those party members who had vowed to strive for democracy in Myanmar would appear to have deceived the people.

Nyunt Shwe is a freelance journalist and former township leader of the National League for Democracy. He has lived in Tokyo since 1991.


About nyuntshwe

A Myanmar, Buddhist, pacifist, and pragmatic person who believe that we are what we think. That leads him positive thinking and he sees the world a beautiful place, but he still likes to keep trying for a better and more beautiful world.
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