Burma’s generals are embracing democracy this year—”discipline-flourishing democracy,” as they like to put it—and some of the junta’s friends are buying in to the program. “There is a new beginning after the elections,” said Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretary General Surin Pitsawan last month, calling them “a step forward.”But not Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party that won Burma’s last elections in 1990. At her bidding, Ms. Suu Kyi’s party announced Monday that it would not contest the elections scheduled for this year, calling them unjust.
It’s not hard to see why. Under the terms of the junta’s 2008 constitution, nation-wide elections will elect a parliament in which 25% of the seats are reserved for the military, and constitutional changes require more than 75% approval. The political parties contesting the election will mostly be controlled by the generals or their friends. Any political party with members in jail is automatically disqualified. Given Burma’s record of imprisoning dissidents, that makes political participation for a legitimate opposition basically impossible. (Right now 429 members of Ms. Suu Kyi’s party are imprisoned.)
Despite the stacked deck, the regime has taken no chances. The government in Naypyidaw appointed an election commission of loyal bureaucrats, who have the power to approve or reject political parties that seek to contest the vote. The junta has also intensified military campaigns against secessionist ethnic minorities and jailed ever more dissidents.
Under those circumstances, Ms. Suu Kyi’s opposition will not change the election outcome, but the symbolism still matters. She remains the country’s most popular political figure, though she has been under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years, and largely cut off from contact with the outside world.
Just as importantly, her move throws down the gauntlet for Burma’s friends—countries like India, Thailand and Singapore—who typically swallow the generals’ line. It also stands as a challenge to the Obama administration, which has pressed for more engagement with the junta but described the recent election laws as a “setback.”
The point of the election charade, as the junta sees it, may be to gain international acclaim or be seen as less of a pariah. But Ms. Suu Kyi’s gambit makes it harder for the generals to claim their democracy represents reconciliation—and for free nations to turn a blind eye.