Burma: Should Opposition Parties Boycott the Election?

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Soe Than Win / AFP / Getty Images

Members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, at their office in Rangoon, Burma, on Sept. 6, 2010

Kaung Myint Htut was just 15 years old when he says Burma's military intelligence dragged him blindfolded from his home in Rangoon for the third time. It was December 1990, six months after the junta had failed to recognize a landslide election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). Like many young students, Kaung Myint Htut had been unable to contain his objections to the political oppression of the military regime, prompting him to become a student leader involved in regular strikes and demonstrations. "They got mad at me," he says, recalling how his interrogators advised him to abandon politics between beatings. "But I couldn't quit."

Six years in prison and two decades later, Kaung Myint Htut has chosen a less confrontational stance ahead of the Nov. 7 election. The first since 1990, the poll's legitimacy has been widely called into question because the previous election results were ignored. He plans to run as an independent candidate in Rangoon's South Okkalapa township, the same constituency as Rangoon Mayor Aung Thein Linn. "We have opposed this illegal government for 20 years," he says. "If you don't participate in the election ... things would be worse." Like many politicians taking part, he argues that an election boycott — the long-standing policy of Suu Kyi's NLD — would allow the junta to win uncontested.

Aung San Suu Kyi's party and Burmese political groups outside the country have condemned the plans of Kaung Myint Htut and others. "Their participation in the election helps the regime in making a permanent dictatorship," says Aung Din, a former political prisoner who runs U.S. Campaign for Burma, an organization campaigning for a boycott. The government's decision to ban those in detention from running in the election, which prompted a faction of the NLD to split with Aung San Suu Kyi, means no Burmese should participate, he argues. "Any political process in Burma without Aung San Suu Kyi is like removing Nelson Mandela from South Africa's anti-apartheid movement," Aung Din says. It remains to be seen whether the junta will free the Nobel Peace Prize winner when her latest period of house arrest expires one week after the vote.

Kaung Myint Htut and the NLD's offshoot, the National Democratic Force (NDF), say that any window of political opportunity in Burma is better than none. But most of the dozens of opposition parties say there has been too little time to prepare since the election was called on Aug. 13 and that the steep candidate-registration fee of $500 and heavily restrictive campaigning regulations are setting their candidates up for failure. Even Kaung Myint Htut's fledgling political party, Myanmar Democracy Congress, died before campaigning started in earnest, unable to raise the funds to register the minimum number of candidates, which forced him to run alone.

With few avenues for collecting party funds — authorities have sought to prosecute opposition politicians collecting donations in public — even the big opposition parties are struggling to compete nationwide, says Khin Maung Swe, formerly of the NLD and now chairman of the NDF. Aung San Suu Kyi's continued house arrest and the fractured nature of the opposition means the different factions will have to avoid undermining one another, he adds. But win or lose, Khin Maung Swe says opposition parties will increasingly work together in the future. "We will have a coalition in the parliament once the election is over."

One thing both sides of the boycott debate agree on is that the odds are stacked against the opposition. Of the 498 elected seats in the lower and upper houses in the parliament, the NDF is likely to contest 150 at most. By contrast, the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by Burma's Prime Minister, Thein Sein, is expected to run for every seat in the country. The military automatically gets 25% — or 166 parliamentarians — in the national legislatures, in addition to the nation's top posts. So even if the election is free and fair — and that's a big if, given that independent monitors are barred from the process — the numbers are hardly in the opposition's favor.

Less clear is just how the various houses of parliament will operate once the votes have been counted. To what extent will opposition MPs be given a voice? Burma has not had a functioning parliament since the military took power in 1962, and the day-to-day logistics remain unclear. A Rangoon-based Western diplomat, who has held several meetings with the USDP since the party was launched in April, described feeling "increasingly pessimistic" about Burma's election and its aftermath. "It's about trying to manage a process. I don't feel they will give space to the opposition."

For the likes of Kaung Myint Htut, who has attempted to forget his previous harsh treatment by the military, deciding to work within the heavily flawed election framework has required a certain level of trust the government has done little to deserve. But he says it's a gamble he feels is necessary if Burma is ever going to change — even if everything is on the military's terms. "My intention was not to be a politician, but I need the legitimacy," he says. "This legitimacy is best for Burma."