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Burma’s time of reckoning

Although the election laws have delivered more than a blow to Burma’s opposition party, there is hope within the crisis that it now finds itself in. Ditching its idolatry leader may gain it some superficial leverage in elections this year, but a total boycott of the polls may trickle down to a mobilised population and start to unseat the ruling generals.

The announcement by the junta that the National League for Democracy (NLD) party must expel its leader to compete this year has shocked even the most hardened of Burma’s warriors: Nyan Win, party spokesperson and lawyer for Aung San Suu Kyi during her trial last year, said that he “was extremely surprised [by the law]…I did not think it would be so bad”. The 2008 constitution made it clear that Suu Kyi herself would be barred from running for office under a clause that blocks people such as her, deemed criminals by the government, from competing in the political arena, but there had been time for this to sink in.

Yet the military’s decision to go one step further and potentially ban the only realistically viable opposition party has sparked a global outcry, and placed the NLD in perhaps its most difficult position since its conception.  Political party bans have been effective and well-used tools by fragile heads of state, from the Nazis in 1933 through to the incumbent Iraqi government earlier this month, and the junta, it would seem, has joined their ranks.

But part of the dilemma for Burma and the NLD is the unquestionable power of Suu Kyi. With her, the lines between pragmatism and symbolism are blurred; her charisma and draw has kept the country on the map for the past 20 years, and her decisions and influence have to an extent dictated Western policy towards it. In pro-democracy circles, what she says goes, and without her, the NLD, and, horrifyingly, Burma, risk slipping into oblivion. The government appears to have orchestrated this charade very well, and either option could spell little promise for the party’s future.

First, the decision to compete in an election that is by all accounts a foregone conclusion is bound to draw the ire of those who don’t want to give the polls any show of legitimacy; indeed they are quite obviously being planned because the government and its reputation have come under increasing fire, and it feels a new lick of paint will steady this. The NLD will not want to lend a hand, so one would guess that it will to lean toward a boycott. Nyan Win said however that it will wait until the party’s Central Executive Committee can convene for a meeting before deciding. Either way, the picture doesn’t look good.

But perhaps there is hope in the crisis. A boycott will indeed leave the door wide open for the junta to coast back to Naypyidaw under the guise of a civilian government, which is what appears to be its plan, and it’ll be business as usual in the pariah state. But with courage and assertion, the boycott could trickle down from political party to everyday civilian and ignite perhaps the final surge against dictatorship, in the form of a complete dislocation of the government from the population.

With a ‘special case’ like Burma, where international diplomacy shows no sign of succeeding and a military coup has little support, there is a case to be made for general population to detach itself completely and remove the hand that feeds the government. It has worked elsewhere to great effect: non-cooperation by the Indian population under British rule, such as the withdrawing of children from government schools and the boycotting of imported goods, led to its independence, while Czechoslovakia’s refusal to participate in the political matters of the occupying Soviets forced their eventual withdrawal.

In Burma, the sham elections are likely to mobilise people further, but the question remains as to whether politician and civilian can coordinate to achieve their shared goals. Perhaps the junta is shooting itself in the foot by giving the NLD no option but to boycott the polls, but the opposition needs to work hard to capitalise on this. It is nearly 50 years since the first military government took seat in Burma, and since that date it has worked to erode any viable threat to its power. But however well orchestrated the elections are, the country has now moved into a state of flux and the chance is nigh to test a new form of resistance.