April 12, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

Burma’s 2010: the Opposition Dilemma


12 October 2009

The date for junta-orchestrated election is closer as Burma’s military dictator Senior General Than Shwe last week confirmed that plans are going ahead with holding a new election in 2010 in accordance with the new Burmese constitution that was passed in a referendum last year.
No electoral laws or exact date for the election has been declared, but the planned election is expected to result in a resounding victory for the ruling regime and its allies clothed in civilian dresses. At least that’s the reasonable expectation given how the new constitution was passed in a constitutional referendum of 2008 in which a resounding more than 90 percent of Burmese citizens supposedly voted for the military-backed constitution.

The new constitution provides that a quarter of both the state and national legislative assemblies would be automatically filled by the military. The remaining two-thirds of the seats in each level of the legislatures would be open for contest by civilian political parties that may be formed under the new electoral law.

It is already widely expected that under the new electoral law, which is yet to be announced, the junta would not allow pre-existing political parties that contested during the 1990 elections, which have been declared unlawful organizations since it took power more than two decades ago, to re-contest in the upcoming elections.

With no exact date announced for the elections or no electoral laws promulgated yet, only less than three months before the year 2010 begins, it is clear that the regime has orchestrated a master plan so that likely opposition parties that may spring up, would have the smallest chance to fill up the 75 percent seats that are up for grabs in 2010.

Burma’s ruling military regime contends that the new constitution would lead to democracy and a return to civilian rule. But constitutional scholars and Burmese activists have both already pointed out the flaws of the military-backed constitution, specifically fingering the 25 percent legislative quotas for the military and the military’s dominance of the executive branch, not to mention the way in which the constitution was passed in May 2008 during the height of Cyclone Nirgis devastation.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the opposition movement has been finding itself holding the short end of the stick. With the opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi still under house arrest and effectively barred from meeting or communicating with members of her party for the last several years, the opposition has been virtually unable to pose any significant political challenge to the junta.

As head of the National League for Democracy, the party entrusted with governing a new democratic Burma in the 1990 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi remains the figurehead of the pro-democracy movement, and widely recognized as Burma’s rightful leader by much of the international community. Unfortunately, her ability to command leadership of her party, as well as, unify the larger opposition movement has continued to be systematically undermined, as was evident in the junta’s latest justification for extending her period of house arrest following an intrusion incident by an American tourist, John Yettaw.

Following the junta’s announcement of election plans in February last year, the opposition has been divided on quite how to respond. Aung San Suu Kyi’s own National League for Democracy party has yet to declare any official position on whether to participate or boycott the 2010 elections.

The exile opposition movement, which has been at the forefront of rallying international support for democracy and human rights in Burma, has also found itself in a dilemma. For months, debates have been ongoing on how to respond to the junta’s elections within the exile opposition groups.

On Saturday, several major exile opposition alliances, which also include the NLD chapter in exile, issued a joint statement declaring that they will boycott the election, the first of such declaration since election plans were announced by the junta 15 months ago.

While the decision to boycott the 2010 election represents the first collective challenge to the junta’s plan, such an initiative also has its shortcomings.

Noticeably absent from joining the voice to boycott the junta’s 2010 election are two key players: the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC), a political alliance representing the seven ethnic states and Washington-based Burmese Government-in-Exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB).

The exile opposition movement is confronted with a dilemma. It is clearly not a split in ideology, but a difference in tactical and strategic approach that seems to be now characterizing each end of the spectrum in the movement.

Two considerations ostensibly influence the thinking that it is premature to condemn or boycott the elections before electoral laws are pronounced, or before the elections are, in fact, organized.

The first consideration may be based on changing international environment, especially in the context of US policy shift on Burma, as well as, the ongoing development inside Burma regarding some limited rooms for maneuver that have emerged in recent days. Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to meet with a trio of western diplomats from the United States, Union and Australia on Friday October 9, the first time of such meeting in years. While the meeting was said to be focused on Western sanctions on Burma, it could also provide a wider opportunity as the Australian envoy suggests that, “It may lay ground for further contact.”

The second consideration may be driven by a more pragmatic view that no matter how the opposition acts to counter the planned elections, the junta will go ahead its plans and declare victory any way. There are merits to this line of approach. Like the constitutional referendum of 2008, the people of Burma, whether they are willing or not, will be forced to cast their votes. If the opposition decides to boycott the election entirely, they will risk alienating the people who have been forced to participate in the elections. The International Crisis Group has recently said in its report that the 2008 constitution and the resulting elections in 2010, as undemocratic and flawed as they are, may present some opportunities for reform.

Such a view seems to be resonant with the policy of the Ethnic Nationalities Council. While making it clear that it doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the 2008 constitution, it has carefully refrained from advocating boycott of the 2010 elections, ostensibly to avoid driving a wedge between the opposition and the people inside Burma who would inevitably participate in the elections. Instead, the ENC has tried to encourage political supports to prospective ethnic candidates.

If, indeed, more opposition candidates were able to secure more seats in the 75 percent of parliamentary seats that are up for grabs for civilian political parties, then they might be able to change the political dynamics and affect the political influence necessary to keep the military in check within its own constitutional framework.

The junta’s announcement to have new elections in 2010 has put the opposition in a dilemma. Clearly it is a carefully calculated move on the part of the ruling military junta. But whether the junta’s master plan will continue to work in its favor in the long run remains to be seen.

But one thing is clear. By transforming itself into a civilian authority, the junta may also be unknowingly opening itself up to demands for accountability and greater international scrutiny that it has somehow managed to evade for the last two decades.

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