At its special two-day national party meeting last week, Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), indicated that it would take part in elections next year if the ruling junta responds positively to a set of three basic requirements: the unconditional release of all political prisoners; amendment of any provisions in the 2008 constitution “not in accord with the democratic principles”; and an all-inclusive, free and fair poll under international supervision.
In a policy statement dubbed the “Shwegondaing Declaration,” the NLD made it clear that it would not stand on principle and insist that the regime allow the party to form a government based upon the results of the last election in 1990. It would, however, expect the junta to acknowledge that the outcome of the election favored the NLD, even though it has never been allowed to take power.
Although the NLD has not made any unconditional commitment to participating in the election, its newly declared willingness to consider such a move marks a significant shift. In fact, it could be considered a sign that the party still has what it takes to continue playing a major role in the country’s political process.
Critics of the NLD have long accused the party of having an unhealthy obsession with its stolen victory. In the Shwegondaing Declaration, however, the party states that elections should not be regarded as obstacles, but rather as “landmarks to be passed in the journey to democracy.”
Why, at this juncture, has the NLD decided to lend some of its legitimacy to the regime by agreeing, in principle, to participate in an election designed by the generals in Naypyidaw to entrench military rule behind a facade of civilian government?
One reason, of course, is that it has little choice but to make a move that can at least keep open the possibility of a future political dialogue. But more than that, it is responding with a renewed sense of urgency to the senseless suffering that two decades of political stalemate and economic stagnation have imposed on the country.
Khin Maung Swe, a leading member of the NLD, emphasized this point when he told The Irrawaddy: “We appeal to the military leaders for the sake of the families of the political prisoners and for the rest of the people, who have suffered socially and economically for decades in the political conflicts.”
Burma desperately needs to rebuild its ruined economy and social infrastructure, which lag far behind those in other developing countries in the region. Around 30 percent of Burma’s estimated 50 million people survive on less than $1 a day. Public investment in education and healthcare is amongst the lowest in the world. One child in ten dies before the age of five.
In an Armed Forces Day speech to the nation on March 27, the regime’s supreme leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe said that political parties that carry out “mature party organizing work will receive the blessing of the government” in next year’s election.
With its latest statement, the NLD has demonstrated that it is mature enough to set aside its own claims to legitimacy for the sake of the country’s future. The only question that remains is whether Than Shwe, the enfant terrible of Burmese politics, can do the same.