Burma Junta’s New Election Law Denies Opposition Leader a Political Role

By Patrick Goodenough | March 10, 2010 | 4:21 AM EST

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, photographed with supporters in Yangon in 2002. (AP File Photo/David Longstreathe)

(CNSNews.com) – Preparing for Burma’s first election in two decades, the military junta has begun to unveil polling laws that will reinforce critics’ belief that the military intends to retain control beneath a veneer of democracy.
The most provocative of the regulations appears designed to ensure that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will have no future political role.
The Obama administration, which in a policy shift last September pledged to engage the regime while keeping sanctions in place, said Tuesday it was skeptical that the elections would be credible.
The regulations put in place by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and published in official media say the junta will itself appoint a five-person body to supervise the election, which is to be held at a yet to be announced date sometime this year.
The laws also set registration requirements for political parties wanting to participate. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and other parties, have 60 days to submit an application including a formal pledge to abide by a controversial new constitution enacted in 2008 and due to enter into force post-election.
Any party that does not meet the registration conditions will be automatically abolished.

Members of the detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party read state-run newspapers carrying the military government's announcement about new election laws at the party's headquarters in Yangon, Burma, on Tuesday, March. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

The NLD convincingly won Burma’s last election, in 1990, but the junta clamped down, ignored the result and held onto power. The country, which the regime has renamed Myanmar, has been under military rule since 1962.
Suu Kyi has spent some 15 of the last 20 years in detention. Her current 18-month house sentence expires in November.
One of the election rules announced this week prohibits anyone with a criminal conviction from participating in party politics, a requirement that would have the effect of compelling her party to expel her.
Suu Kyi is in any case prohibited from holding political office by a clause in the new constitution which bars anyone who has been married to a foreign citizen.
Western governments in general consider the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners a prerequisite for a fair election. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Monday for prisoners to be freed and for the authorities to work for elections that are “credible, inclusive, and transparent.”
The NLD has yet to announce a final decision on whether it intends to take part in the election.
Another article of the election law says that the five-person supervisory body will be empowered to postpone voting in certain areas in the event of natural disaster or “due to the local security situation.”
The provision would likely apply to areas in Burma where the regime has failed to quell long running insurgencies by ethnic minority groups.
The junta’s decision to permit elections is widely seen as an attempt to relieve outside pressure. The Obama administration said in its September policy shift that the U.S. “will maintain existing sanctions until we see concrete progress towards reform.”
Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip Crowley told a briefing Tuesday that the administration was concerned about the unilateral nature of the issuing of election laws.
“We remain skeptical that the elections planned for this year will be credible and we urge the authorities to begin a genuine political dialogue with all stakeholders as a first step towards credible elections,” he said.
‘The regime doesn’t care about statements and speeches’
The new constitution, ratified after a dubious 2008 referendum in which the junta claimed 90 percent support sets aside 25 percent of seats in parliament for military representatives. Since any legislative amendment will require the backing of more than 75 percent of members, the military will therefore have effective veto power.
Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma (USCB), noted that it is not just political and other prisoners who are barred from political activity. Also banned under the newly released rules are monks, nuns, religious leaders, foreigners, members or associates of unlawful organizations and insurgent groups, and drug addicts.
He said by issuing the regulations the junta has declared to the world that Suu Kyi and other political prisoners will not be allowed to participate.
“Now, the ball is in the court of the United Nations, United States, and the international community, who have been repeatedly calling for the regime to make a inclusive, free and fair election,” Aung Din said.
“I hope they will transform their words into a collective and effective action,” he added. “The regime already proves that it does not care [about] statements and speeches.”
The USCB earlier cautiously supported the administration’s approach of a combination of sanctions and engagement, but with the conditions that the timeframe is limited, benchmarks are set, and that if regime abuses continue pressure should be stepped up – including seeking a U.N. Security Council arms embargo.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow