Obama Administration Says Engagement With Burma Will Continue Despite Deepening Political Crisis

By Patrick Goodenough | March 30, 2010 | 4:40 AM EDT

A regional branch office of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). The government allowed the party to open its branch offices on Thursday, March 11, 2010. They were forced to close in 2004. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

(CNSNews.com) – The Burmese opposition’s decision not to participate in the first elections in two decades  poses a new challenge for the Obama administration, which decided to engage the military junta in a policy shift last September.
The boycott decision made by the National League for Democracy (NLD) on Monday throws into further doubt the future of the ruling junta’s “roadmap to disciplined democracy,” first announced in 2003.
Participation in the elections would have compelled the NLD to dissociate itself from its veteran leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and embrace a constitution it opposes.  
The latest development in the troubled Southeast Asian country means the NLD now faces possible disbandment, since parties that don’t register for the election are supposed to be dissolved.
Although the State Department on Monday blamed the regime for the opposition’s decision, it also said U.S. engagement with Burma would continue.
“I don’t know that we expected necessarily everything to be resolved in one or two or three meetings,” said spokesman Philip Crowley, referring to bilateral talks which began last fall.
The junta’s “roadmap to disciplined democracy” is a seven-step process built around the drafting of a new constitution and elections later this year. The plan was aimed at defusing internal tensions and alleviating international pressure.
But its critics said it ultimately was designed to keep power in military hands. They point among other things to a constitutional provision setting aside 25 percent of seats in parliament for military representatives.
The roadmap’s credibility depended to a large degree on its success in luring opposition groups, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD and organizations representing ethnic minorities, to participate.
The NLD was considering whether to do so, but waiting for the junta to announce laws under which the election would take place.
When that announcement was made earlier this month, it came as a blow to the NLD. In a measure clearly aimed at excluding incarcerated party leaders and other political prisoners, the junta said no one with a criminal conviction would be allowed to participate in party politics.
Suu Kyi has spent about 15 of the last 20 years in detention. Her latest 18 month house arrest sentence expires in November.
The new constitution had already barred Suu Kyi from holding office, via a provision prohibiting anyone who has been married to a foreign citizen from doing so. But the new election regulations went further, effectively forcing the NLD to expel its leader altogether if it wished to take part in the election. On the other hand, any party that does not meet the registration conditions for the election will be automatically abolished.
Suu Kyi sent word through her lawyer last week that she would not advise participating in the poll, and NLD leaders meeting on Monday endorsed that position.
“After a unanimous vote of the central executive committee, the NLD party has decided not to register as a political party,” it said in a statement, calling the election laws “unfair and unjust.”
Burma has been under military rule since 1962, and in 1990 the current junta overturned the result of elections after the NLD easily won. The country, which the junta renamed Myanmar, has not held an election since.
The NLD’s decision to boycott the elections came several days after a 12-party ethnic coalition announced it would not participate. Together the NLD and the 12 ethnic parties won more than 90 percent of the votes in the 1990 election, and their refusal to take part in this year’s poll leaves its future in question.
According to a report last January in a Japanese newspaper, citing junta sources, the military plans to facilitate the setting up of several proxy parties to contest the election.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Tuesday that if the NLD is not involved, the elections cannot be considered free or fair. Australia is a member of a United Nations-convened group of nations attempting to resolve the drawn-out Burma crisis.
What happens next may depend largely on the stance taken by the international community, especially Burma’s neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) grouping and other Asian countries with strong economic ties, including China and Japan.
The crisis is likely to be discussed by the Group of Eight major industrial nations, meeting this week in Canada, and at an ASEAN summit in Hanoi next week.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma on Monday supported and praised the NLD decision, urging the international community through the U.N. to reject the election plan, and to apply effective pressure on the regime to release political prisoners and begin a meaningful dialogue.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow