BANGKOK // Myanmar's military rulers have officially barred the detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from participating in this year's elections and could force her party, the National League for Democracy, to expel her.
The new laws also threaten the very existence of her party. Analysts believe this may lead to a split, with a breakaway group of younger members prepared to contest the elections, forming a new party. The political parties' registration law, published in the state-run newspapers yesterday, prohibits anyone with a criminal conviction from taking part in the planned elections. "This has obviously been carefully crafted to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from playing any role in the elections," said a Burmese analyst based in Bangkok, Sein Kyaw Hlaing.
The Nobel Peace Laureate is currently serving 18 months under house arrest after being convicted last August of violating the terms of her previous house arrest by briefly sheltering an uninvited American intruder who swam to her lakeside residence. She is due to be released in November, after the elections are expected to have been held. Aung San Suu Kyi has already spent more than 14 of the past 21 years in detention. The pro-democracy leader was already excluded from political office by a clause in the constitution which bars people with foreign spouses or passports from holding public office. Now they are trying to make sure she will have no role at all in the forthcoming electoral process.
The new law also bars members of religious orders and civil servants from joining political parties. All 10 existing political parties have 60 days from Monday to register with the new electoral commission or be disbanded. "It is a crucial time for the party, for registering would mean accepting the new constitution and playing by the junta's rules," said a spokesman for the party, Zin Linn, based in Thailand. "If we don't expel Daw Suu, the NLD will also be automatically deregistered."
The NLD convincingly won the last elections, in May 1990, winning more than 80 per cent of the seats, but was never allowed to form a civilian government. The junta took more than a decade to draw up the new constitution, approved in a nationwide referendum in May 2008, which the international community dismissed as a sham. In the new constitution, the army has reserved 25 per cent of the seats in the two houses of parliament for military representatives.
The newly published electoral laws prohibit anyone serving a prison sentence from being a member of a political party. "This is not the most crucial matter - Aung San Suu Kyi can rejoin the NLD as soon as she is released," Kyaw Hlaing told The National. "The real dilemma for the party is accepting the election commission rules, which would mean giving up their conditions for competing in the elections." These include releasing all political prisoners, a review of the 2008 constitution, recognising the 1990 election result and starting a dialogue between Ms Suu Kyi and the junta.
"We just don't know what to do - and will have to discuss our options in detail," said a key NLD leader, Win Tin. Mr Tin, 81, a central executive member, was released from prison in September 2008, after serving 19 years. The NLD's newly expanded central committee, of 108 people, is expected to meet in the near future, according to opposition sources in Yangon. Ms Suu Kyi's view will also be sought when her lawyer and the NLD spokesman, Nyan Win, visits her shortly.
Even before these laws were published, there was intense discussion within the party about participating in the elections. Many of the younger NLD members are convinced that they should use the opportunity to test the limits of any new political freedom the elections may offer. "When the election comes around, people will vote for the party that supports 'Democracy'," the social researcher and former political prisoner based in Yangon, Khin Zaw Win, said. The NLD youth and many of their leaders understand that, he said. "Darkness has already covered us," said Mr Zaw Win. "We have already lost more than 20 years and the people will only suffer more if we miss this opportunity."
The newly published laws have sparked a renewed bitter debate inside the NLD about what to do next, according to Mr Kyaw Hlaing. "One, which could result in the party splitting - with one faction headed by the young leaders, registering under a new name and contesting the elections," he said. Many pro-democracy activists, especially outside the country believe this is exactly what the military regime wants. "The junta is deliberately squeezing the NLD," Mr Linn said. "They want a weakened NLD to compete in the elections."
The party has limited room to manoeuvre. But international human rights groups such as Amnesty International point out that the draconian political parties' law not only disadvantages the NLD, but effectively excludes all current political prisoners from entering politics. The regime seems particularly worried about scores of former student leaders of the 1988 mass democracy movement, who were jailed last year for their involvement in the Buddhist monk-led mass protests in 2007.
Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty's Bangkok-based Myanmar researcher, said "It's sending all the wrong signals at a time when the international community is inclined to give the junta the benefit of the doubt. "Instead they are gratuitously flaunting their authority. For the election to be credible, all political prisoners must be released and allowed to participate." So far there has been no announcement of a polling date, but most analysts expect it to be in the last quarter of the year. Myanmar's police chief, Gen Khin Yi is reported to have recently told a local gathering in the capital Naypyidaw that the elections would be in October.