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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 30, 2007
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The loss of Myanmar's democratic voice
By Brian McCartan

BANGKOK - Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has received strong international condemnation for its crackdown on anti-government protestors in September, with the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations all calling on the junta to open dialog with the opposition and move towards democracy. But even if the SPDC were willing to compromise, which despite the international pressure seems unlikely, it's not

clear with whom the junta should really be negotiating.

The demonstrations which began in August were initially led by a group of former student activists and long-time political prisoners known as the 88 Generation Student Group, which has its activist roots in the 1988 pro-democracy protests the military brutally squashed. Within a few days the group's leaders were arrested and the gauntlet was taken up by the Buddhist clergy, which was also cracked down on. Myanmar's largest pro-democracy opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in the main stayed on the sidelines.

The one-hour meeting between NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta's appointed liaison officer, retired Major General Aung Kyi, last Thursday has been widely viewed as yet another disingenuous move by the SPDC to pay mere lip service to the international call for dialogue. Only this time the NLD's credibility is also at stake.

NLD secretary U Lwin set the tone for the party's stance on the demonstrations in an August 25 interview with Radio Free Asia, in which he said: "In fact, they [Myanmar's problems] won't be solved just through protests." He went on to question the relevance of the protests due to their small size. Although these statements were made at the beginning of the protests, the NLD's official line never changed, even when it became clear that the protests enjoyed widespread popular support.

The NLD had two opportunities to demonstrate its leadership of Myanmar's battered and bruised pro-democracy movement and its claimed position as the people's elected representative. First, the arrest of the 88 Student Generation Group's leadership presented the opportunity for the NLD to assume the leadership over the protests, but instead it stayed silent and allowed the Buddhist clergy to take the baton.

When the demonstrations grew to over 100,000 in Yangon and tens of thousands elsewhere, the opportunity arose again for the NLD to show its leadership and leverage its organizational powers to provide proper focus for the movement's democratic demands. Instead, other than a rather weak statement on September 14 that limited the party to blaming the generals for the protests and calling for political dialogue leading to national reconciliation, NLD participation in the protests came only through individuals rather than as a collective political force.

To be sure, the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations were initially disorganized. Street protests which were at first organized around student groups from various university campuses around Yangon were later joined by newly formed trade unions and an underground monks' movement, but remained leaderless for several months. Although activists like Min Ko Naing and Moe Thi Zon had strong popular support, there was no real leader with the stature and charisma to bind all the groups under a cohesive banner until Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero Aung San, made a speech to several hundred thousand people at Shwedagon Pagoda on August 25, 1988. This was five months after demonstrations first began in March of that year.

Suu Kyi was later joined by former General Tin Oo and together with other politicians they formed the National League for Democracy (NLD). With the formation of the NLD, the Burmese people finally had leaders and an opposition party to follow. Although many other parties were formed in the lead-up to the 1990 elections, the NLD was widely recognized as the chief opposition party. This was borne out when the NLD won a whopping 82% majority of the vote during the elections, despite the fact that by that time both Suu Kyi and Tin Oo were under house arrest.

Democracy delayed
The military government, surprised if not shocked at the landslide election results against them, declared that a new constitution would have to be created before a new government could be formed, an announcement which effectively nullified the results of the election. A national convention was formed to create the new charter, but after several attempts the NLD walked out in 1995, declaring that it was unwilling to sign off on the regime's diktats. The convention stalled until 2004 when the SPDC revived the process, though this time without the NLD.

At the same time, most of the other political parties had either been declared illegal or pressured into disbanding. Although several regional, ethnic-based parties survived, the NLD has remained as the only party with a national support base. Yet the NLD has suffered from its own internal problems. Although never formally outlawed, the party has come under tremendous military pressure. Suu Kyi has spent most of the past 19 years under house arrest. Tin Oo has also been in and out of prison or under house arrest for much of that time. The party's regional offices have been systematically closed down by the government, with only the decrepit party headquarters in Yangon now permitted to remain open.

The party itself has suffered from periodic waves of pressure by the regime for its members to resign their affiliation. The resignations from NLD members in Yangon and elsewhere across the country are often published in the state media, usually alongside supposed coerced statements by the individuals that they now recognize the NLD as not working for the good of the country and that they will no longer participate in politics.

Mass rallies, often organized by the junta's de facto political party, the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA), have ridiculed Suu Kyi and the NLD. The USDA has also been 

Continued 1 2 

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