Myanmar Opposition Party To Boycott Election

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Detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy have decided to boycott Myanmar's first election in two decades. The NLD charges that the electoral process is undemocratic and notes that the military junta has prohibited Suu Kyi from running.


In Myanmar - the country formerly known as Burma - the opposition party has decided to boycott a general election set for later this year. The election is part of what Myanmar's military rulers call their roadmap to democracy. But the opposition National League of Democracy calls it a sham, designed to perpetuate the military's grip on power. NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan reports on what the NLD's decision could mean for the party, for the military and for Myanmar's people.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: In the end, says senior NLD activist U Win Tin, it came down to a matter of principle. And he knows a little about principle, having spent nearly two decades as a political prisoner, a guest of the military.

Mr. U WIN TIN (Senior Activist, National League of Democracy): They have no intention of giving some democratic practice in this electoral process. So we will have to ask the people to boycott it.

SULLIVAN: In addition, U Win Tin says, participating in the election would have forced the NLD to abandon many of its key members, including detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, since the military's new election law prohibits people with criminal convictions from participating. U Win Tin spoke from his home in Yangon.

Mr. U WIN TIN: Not only Aung San Suu Kyi our leader, we cannot expel our comrades, you see, who are serving in the prison. We cannot expel them, too. It's a matter of principle.

SULLIVAN: But that principle will cost the party dearly. Under the military's newly written election law, any party that does not register for the election will officially cease to exist, which is probably just fine with the military. The NLD won the last election in 1990 in a landslide. The military ignored that result and has been harassing and imprisoning NLD members ever since.

Professor David Steinberg, a long-time Myanmar watcher at Georgetown University, says the NLD's decision not to participate will play well internationally, but maybe not so well or so effectively at home.

Professor DAVID STEINBERG (Georgetown University): There will be people who say the election was so unjust that there's no way they could do that, therefore they did the right thing. I think internally, in the country, that's another matter.

SULLIVAN: Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese analyst and former activist now living in Thailand, agrees. He predicts a number of NLD members will now form their own parties with their own agendas, but worries what will happen if they push the military too far, too fast. He and Professor Steinberg agree the NLD made a mistake by opting out of the elections. And the NLD and the military are similar, Aung Naing Oo says, in their refusal to compromise at the expense of the people.

Mr. AUNG NAING OO (Burmese Analyst): The people are caught between two giants. You know, Aung San Suu Kyi�once said something like, oh, we are the grass caught between the fight of two buffaloes. So the people are actually the victims, in this case. You know, they are just sort of pawns in this political game.

SULLIVAN: Participating in a flawed election, both Professor Steinberg and analyst Aung Naing Oo say, is better than not participating at all. Aung Naing Oo.

Mr. AUNG NAING OO: Of course, this is not democracy, but military has been in power in Burma for the past 50 years. And if you really want to see change in the country, we need to bring the military out of isolation. We need to see 2010 process as a very first step in a long and painful road to democracy.

Meanwhile, the NLD's decision to boycott is likely to give more ammunition to those in the U.S. who oppose the Obama administration's tentative steps toward engagement with Myanmar's military.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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