The opposition’s boycott of planned elections is understandable and principled—but still regrettable.OFFERED a choice between political suicide and a crippled half-life as a legal party, Myanmar’s main opposition force this week, unlike Hamlet, reached for the bare bodkin. Heeding the reported advice of its detained figurehead, Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy announced in effect its own termination by refusing to register for the elections the ruling junta has promised to stage later this year. A boycott was the only option if the party was to remain true to its democratic ideals. But it was also, probably, a mistake.
There is no shortage of reasons to justify an electoral boycott. The constitution, drafted without the League’s input and under which the election will be held, was foisted on Myanmar through a farcical “referendum” in 2008. It entrenches the army’s role, guaranteeing it a quarter of parliamentary seats. Many others will be filled by “retired” army officers. Laws bar Miss Suu Kyi from office both as the widow of a foreigner, and, under a rule that also debars many of the League’s other leaders, as the holder of a criminal conviction. For Myanmar’s press, as stifled as any in the world, the opposition and its point of view might as well not exist.
In 1990, the previous time the generals had an election, the League won by a landslide. The junta prevented it taking power, but was mightily embarrassed. It seems determined not to make the same error twice. After 20 years of brutal harassment and persecution of the opposition in all its forms, there is absolutely no chance of a free and fair election. Its leaders, Miss Suu Kyi above all, are cut off from the news, advice and debate to make informed decisions. The “civilian” regime that emerges from the polls will probably be dominated by the very same thugs and incompetents who have made such a benighted mess of a fertile, resource-rich country.
So it is understandable that the League should decline to afford either the constitution or the election any credibility by taking part. And their decision will at least make it harder for the outside world to pretend that these elections open more than a tiny crack in the junta’s totalitarian façade. America and Europe were in any case always going to find it difficult to pretend, but Myanmar’s Asian neighbours might have. And they probably have more influence, which is not saying much.
A crumb is better than no bread
A tiny bit of influence, however, is better than none, which is also why the League should contest the election. Its activists tell foreign diplomats in Yangon that they can continue their struggle for democracy as an NGO. That seems unlikely, given the junta’s record of unmitigated repression. The alternative to registration may well be political extinction.
The League will also be excluded from the first set of significant changes in Myanmar’s government since the present bunch of generals took over, after the crushing of a popular uprising in 1988. Some observers believe change will be far-reaching. They point to the growth of a small but wealthy business class, the limited devolution promised to some of the border areas inhabited by rebellious ethnic minorities, and the generational shift under way in the army itself.
The “senior general”, Than Shwe, is 77 and, apparently worried about the comfort and security of his twilight years, is distributing power among a coalition of interest groups. The crack he has opened, some argue, will widen inexorably. The pluralist genie will be out of the bottle. Even this seems hopelessly wishful thinking. But, at least, some change is coming to Myanmar. Almost any, short of all-out civil war, would be better than none. And it would help if Miss Suu Kyi and her party had some role, however circumscribed, in shaping it.