While the focus of the continuing protest in Thailand is how to change a military-drafted Constitution, Myanmar's junta is busy in rolling out poll rules.
Will Myanmar's National League for Democracy (NLD) think the unthinkable and participate in the flawed polls being promised by the military rulers? More precisely, will the opposition NLD do so by distancing itself from its long-incarcerated leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still under house arrest?
Elsewhere in East Asia, will Thailand's civilian Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, distance himself from the military bloc, which holds the balance of power? These seemingly unrelated questions point to a somewhat shared reality: the military's shadow in both Thailand and Myanmar over their respective politics.
Obviously, the military's stranglehold on civilian politics is not as acute in present-day Thailand as it has been in Myanmar for a long time. But the current Thai crisis flows from the perceived role of the military leaders in propping up a civilian government under a Constitution they drafted in 2007.
By Sunday (March 21), as the Thai protesters kept up a relentless but peaceful campaign, Mr. Abhisit offered dialogue: statute changes being one of the issues. He is also not insisting that he should first be allowed to complete his current term, due to end late in 2011. While the focus of protest in Thailand is how to change a military-crafted Constitution, Myanmar's junta is still busy in rolling our rules under its blueprint.
For long under the heels of unelected military rulers, Myanmar is virtually a byword for opaque national politics behind a bamboo curtain in this space age. Equally, Ms Suu Kyi, the indomitable campaigner for a peaceful power-shift from military dictatorship to representative governance, is a democracy icon. It is this aspect that won her the Nobel Peace Prize.
The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Myanmar's current junta, has recently promulgated decrees for polls under “a roadmap of democracy.” The SPDC is widely seen to have responded to long years of international sanctions and peer-pressure from within the ASEAN bloc. Yet, the Myanmar junta has had no intention of going the whole hog towards a system of truly representative politics. And, the poll decrees reflect the fear of the military generals that Ms Suu Kyi can turn the tide against them in a level-playing political field.
Unsurprisingly, the SPDC has decreed that no individual can stand for election if he or she has been convicted and sentenced by a court of law. Not only that. No such person can be a leader or even a member of a political party, if it is to participate in the polls at a date yet to be specified. And above all, no group of persons, including an existing political party such as the NLD, can register itself with a “convict” as a leader or even a member. Moreover, a formal registration under these new “rules and regulations” is required if a party is to nominate candidates for the promised polls. So, it is no secret that the SPDC's singular purpose is to keep both Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD or just her away from the new “road towards democracy.” Her current term of house arrest is an executive-modified version of a much harsher court sentence. She was found “guilty” of having violated the conditions of her previous term of house arrest.
On two counts, Ms. Suu Kyi's current ordeal fits the taboos under Myanmar's latest poll laws and vice versa. She has lived under detention, including some time in prison, for over 14 years in the two decades since her NLD triumphed in the last polls in 1990. And, every schoolboy knows that she was not allowed by Myanmar's military establishment to form a government on the basis of the 1990-poll results. Of greater relevance today, though, is that her current detention is the first such action against her on the basis of a trial in a court and a related “guilty” verdict. All her previous terms of detentions were not the result of any trial or “conviction” in a court. They were simply based on the executive order of the junta. Secondly in this sub-text, the NLD and its lawyers have so far failed in their efforts to get her current “conviction” overturned by the apex court. This aspect, too, can be seen to fit Myanmar's latest poll-related taboos and vice versa.
Such an ambience gives Ms. Suu Kyi no elbow room for political activity and forces the NLD to face an existential dilemma. The inevitable question is whether the NLD, which cannot get the poll decrees altered, sign its own death warrant by not abandoning Ms. Suu Ky. Illustrative of the dilemma are the answers that two NLD leaders in Yangon have given this correspondent in recent phone-in calls.
Octogenarian Tin Oo, only recently released from house arrest, said: “The NLD's Central Executive Committee (CEC) will hold a very decisive meeting [on this issue] on March 29. We will very seriously discuss the pros and cons of whether to enrol [the NLD] or not [for the junta-promised polls this year]. There is speculation [that the NLD may opt to enrol without Ms. Suu Kyi in its fold]. We will reserve our [March 29] resolution for her [consideration]. The resolution is to be based on a harmonious decision [by the CEC]. She has [of course] told us she will comply with the CEC's resolution [when passed]. But [the NLD knows that] Aung San Suu Kyi is not an ordinary lady. She is the prestigious leader of our democratic cause and struggle. She is universal [in her political appeal].”
Spelling out a further nuance of this existential dilemma, the NLD spokesman, Nyan Win, said “Ms. Suu Kyi does not like the Constitution.” He was referring to the statute which the junta declared ratified in a referendum that was held when Myanmar was reeling under the impact of Cyclone Nargis. “And, she does not like the [promised] election” under this Constitution and the new poll rules, said Nyan Win, her political associate. Yet, “she will respect the party's [prospective] decision” on whether the NLD should now agree to participate in the flawed polls the junta might hold.