TOPICS : Burma opposition’s boycott sends tough message

Marwaan Macan-Markar

By deciding to boycott a constitutional convention in Burma, the country’s main opposition party delivered an unequivocal message to the military regime — that it believes democracy cannot be trifled with. The National League for Democracy (NLD) party made its intentions clear on Friday, when it refused to register as a participant at the constitution-drafting process due to commence on May 17. Also on Friday, an umbrella group of ethnic-based political parties in Burma decided against joining the convention. NLD officials said the party’s decision was based on the climate of oppression in the lead-up to the National Convention, and the junta’s reluctance to free from house arrest the party’s leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

In staying away from the convention, the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), made up of eight ethnic-based parties that ran in the 1990 parliamentary election, said it would be pointless to participate in the process, reported the ‘Irrawaddy’ magazine, based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. Part of the UNA is the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, which received the second largest number of votes after the NLD in the 1990 poll.

Rangoon’s rulers have refused to recognise the results of the 1990 parliamentary elections in Burma, where the NLD got more than 80 per cent of the 485 seats in the parliament. Since then, the junta has crushed political freedoms and suppressed any person viewed as a threat to its iron grip on the country. The issue of Rangoon’s lack of regard for democracy, say Burma watchers, was due to surface at the National Convention, which is part of a ‘road map’ to pave the way for political reform. This is because of a law that prohibits any individual or political party from criticising the National Convention format designed by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the official name of the military regime, and denies convention participants the freedom to shape a constitution that is an alternative to the one drafted by the military.

The law also places restrictions on the way speeches can be made during the convention. Those who want to do so have to write their speeches and get them approved from the military before it can be delivered. Those who violate this law face prison terms that could range from five to 20 years. In addition, the junta has assigned a place for the military in the planned constitution — and it will brook no compromise on its role in politics. These features, in fact, were evident the last time Rangoon invited political parties to sit with the military government to draft a new constitution. That National Convention, which began in 1993, ended abruptly after the NLD walked out in protest in 1996. It’s objections stemmed from the junta’s reluctance to accept its political contributions towards the constitutional-drafting process. The junta’s decision to reconvene the National Convention was the result of mounting international pressure. But in eyes of some Asian governments in fact, the upcoming convention is a positive step to political change and the best sign of reforms in years. Still, the NLD’s decision to boycott the convention questions the credibility of this political exercise. — IPS