Taking no chances with democracy

Incarcerated political leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is facing dissolution, with Myanmar’s military rulers compelling mass resignations from the party by threatening to ban it as a ‘terrorist’ organisation.

‘’The authorities are putting immense pressure on NLD members to resign,” according to a senior party member. “It is one of the key ways the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) is trying to weaken our party.’’ This strategy is part of the junta’s longer-term plans to crush all political opposition in the country before fresh elections are held under the new constitution, currently being drafted by the National Convention. But the crackdown is believed to have been prompted by the recent, momentous political events in the neighbourhood, particularly in Thailand and Nepal.

“The amazing political volte face by King Gyanendra in the face of massive demonstrations demanding a return to democracy in Kathmandu recently and the street protests in Ban-gkok that forced Thailand’s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra to step down as the country’s leader have rocked the old man, who now more than ever fears a repeat of the mass pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988, which forced Ne Win to stand down,” said a close confidante of Myanmar’s top general Than Shwe. Taking lessons from Nepal and Thailand, Than Shwe appears keen to avoid heavy-handed methods, which could only invite further international attention. According to notes from a meeting between Myanmar’s police chief Major General Khin Yi and his subordinates, the police have been instructed to crush the NLD using stealth and intelligence and not brute force.

Ever since the NLD won a landslide election victory in 1990, it has been a thorn in the side of the army, which denied the party assuming power and began systematic efforts to stifle democracy. The move to declare the NLD a terrorist organisation is the worst of these, so far. NLD leaders are convinced that a final campaign to crush them is underway. Despite the apparent official change of tack by the police, harassment and intimidation, especially of young party members, has been stepped up in the last few months, according to senior party sources. It has been clear for some time that the junta’s aim is to marginalise the charismatic opposition leader Suu Kyi, who is still under house arrest, and eliminate the pro-democracy parties as part of its planned national reconciliation process.

The increased campaign of harassment and intimidation of NLD members seems to be the result of both internal and external factors. From deep within his new bunker in Pyinmana, Than Shwe has been carefully monitoring international events. He has ordered a crackdown on any signs of opposition within the country for fear of being forced to follow the example of some of his neighbours. Late last year, the junta, further isolated itself from the international community by moving its capital 400 km north into the central hills. Than Shwe has been disturbed and angered by the NLD’s recent initiatives and renewed assertiveness, especially as it coincided with the country’s prime minister General Soe Win telling visiting Malaysian foreign minister Dato Syed Hamid Albar in March that Suu Kyi was irrelevant to Myanmar politics. — IPS