Burma’s National League for Democracy: A fateful choice?

Author: Trevor Wilson, ANU

There is widespread speculation that Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will shortly decide against registering for Burma’s 2010 elections under the heavily unbalanced election law promulgated by Burma’s military regime in early March. NLD members are reportedly divided on whether the party should participate in the elections, presumably fearing that the party stands little chance with its leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest (as she was during Burma’s previous elections, which the NLD ‘won’).

Most observers acknowledge the disadvantageous environment in which these elections will be held rather than examining the consequences of the NLD non-participation, which are potentially very serious.

One of the underlying strengths of the NLD for the international community, and for people inside Burma, has been the legitimacy it gained from winning the great majority of seats in the 1990 elections. This meant that countries that espouse democracy could maintain their backing for the NLD because it could demonstrate that it enjoyed the support of the people, because it remained a lawful (and generally law-abiding) political party with reasonably clear policies and strategies, and because it represented a genuine and infinitely preferable alternative to military rule. Moreover, its steadfast commitment to unarmed peaceful resistance to oppression won respect and universal admiration, even when it made tactical ‘mistakes’.

While the NLD’s legitimacy was wearing thin after the elapse of twenty years since the 1990 election, no other political organisation in Burma could lay claim to any greater legitimacy or popular support. Moreover the NLD’s position as ‘victor’ in 1990 meant that by all reasonable argument the party was entitled to be prominent in any consultations about future political arrangements, and could not be ignored by the ‘temporary’ military government, other than at its own cost. So even though the NLD seemed to be in a relatively weak position vis a vis the overwhelming power of the military, in fact the ruling State Peace and Development Council has consistently been forced to recognised the NLD’s primacy in any discussions about the political future of Burma. The military regime always stopped short of attempting to destroy the NLD outright out of concern that this might unleash a popular backlash against the military regime. Renewing this legitimacy is an important goal in the 2010 elections, even if the vastly different conditions under which the elections will be conducted effectively preclude a repeat of the unexpectedly clear-cut 1990 results.

The flawed election process in the 2010 elections and the grotesquely distorted bias against opposition parties mean that nobody – inside or outside Burma – expects groups opposing the military will be able gain the majority of votes or claim the right to take over the role of governing the country against the wishes of the army. No election outcome under such contrived unfair conditions will carry significant legitimacy or satisfy the normal criteria for deciding who should rule the country. So a loss by any opposition group which contested the election to the best of its ability would not necessarily be seen as an accurate reflection of the extent of that group’s popular support.

On the other hand, an NLD decision of its own accord to withdraw from the elections would represent a major victory for the present Burmese military regime. It could leave lingering doubts about the party’s continuing strength and support within the country. The army’s leadership, which both hates and fears Aung San Suu Kyi, would be enormously relieved to have this thorn in their side finally removed.  It would probably be many years before any new political group could muster similar grass-roots political force. The army would have the field to itself and would easily be able to deal with the rump of the ‘opposition’. It would have no hesitation in harshly repressing the NLD as an ‘illegal’ organisation, if the NLD refused to register as a political party when other groups have done so.

If it were no longer a legal organisation, the NLD would quickly lose the credibility it has so widely and solidly enjoyed. While many would still sympathise with its aims and its fate, there would be little they could do by way of offering support. The NLD would effectively be withdrawing from the front-line of political action and could be forced ‘underground’, where its continued existence would be much more vulnerable and fragile. Or, alternatively, it might remain as a purely expatriate organisation with little visible presence inside the country. In either case, there would no longer be a main rallying point for opposition to the military, no powerful source of hope and inspiration for the people of Burma, and no immediate prospect of real improvement in the lot of the ordinary people of Burma.

Trevor Wilson is Visiting Fellow in Political and Social Change at the Australian National University and former Australian Ambassador to Burma.