Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Suu Kyi's party bids farewell to politics but not to its hopes

This week, more than 21 years after Burma's National League for Democracy sprang to life on a wave of opposition to military rule, it will cease to exist, the dreams of its founders still unrealised, and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi in long-term detention.

Under laws drawn up by Burma's ruling generals to govern elections this year, the NLD was forced to choose between expelling its iconic leader on the grounds that she is a prisoner, or not registering for the vote. It chose the latter, a decision which means the party cannot legally exist after the 6 May deadline for registration.

It is a depressing end to the NLD's long and fruitless battle to bring democracy to Burma. Born out of the failed uprising of 1988, the party won a landslide victory in the last national elections in 1990, but the military never allowed it to take power. Senior members of the party, most of them now elderly, have been harassed, imprisoned and tortured. Yet through all this, and despite this final, killer blow to their party, NLD activists have extraordinary belief.

"We do not feel sad," said Tin Oo, the NLD's 83-year-old deputy leader who has endured several spells in prison and was freed from house arrest in February. "We have honour. One day we will come back; we will be reincarnated by the will of the people."

Dignified to the last, party members have chosen not to take down the NLD sign and red-and-white party flag outside their humble headquarters in Rangoon. The security forces will do that job for them, said Win Tin, Burma's longest-serving political prisoner who was released in 2008 after 19 years in jail, most of them spent in solitary confinement in Rangoon's infamous Insein prison.

"We won't dismantle our party ourselves," said the veteran party activist, who is a remarkably sparkly 80-year-old, despite suffering years of torture. "Symbolically, that would be wrong. But remember, this is nothing new for us. We've seen our offices closed all over the country, our flags and signboards pulled down. We are used to this repression."

From their shabby offices, a two-storey terrace squeezed between shops selling cheap wooden furniture, NLD members plan to continue their social work, which includes small education and health projects and offering financial and moral support for the families of Burma's estimated 2,100 political prisoners.

"But we will not do political work here," said Tin Oo, choosing his words carefully. "We want to avoid any misunderstanding with the authorities."

It is a far cry from the golden days of the late 1980s, said Win Tin, when the NLD's membership topped six million and the movement seemed unstoppable. Beaten down by years of repression, intimidation and crushed uprisings, it is a brave person now who publicly declares allegiance to the NLD.

"In the old days, our supporters had memberships cards, now they support us in their hearts and in their minds," Win Tin said. "There are very few speaking out these days. I am 80 and my health is bad. I have nothing to lose by speaking out so I have to be daring, on behalf of all the others."

This year's election, expected to be held in October or November, will offer little for those longing for change in Burma. Western governments have already dismissed the vote as a sham, saying it will merely put a civilian face on half a century of military rule.

Last week's resignation from the army of the Prime Minister, General Thein Sein, and 22 other cabinet ministers appeared to support this view. According to reports, the general then applied to form a new political party. Under Burma's new constitution, 25 per cent of seats in parliament will already be reserved for the military; soldiers who have recently given up their uniforms will be counted separately as civilians, a way of bulking up military power in the legislature.

"The only reason this election is being held is to legitimise military rule, not because the generals want to share their power with anyone else," said Bertil Lintner, a Burma expert and the author of several books about the country.

He said the regime's manoeuvres are meaningless to the Burmese people. For them, the death of the NLD will not diminish their desire for democracy, or their affection for its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest at her lakeside home in Rangoon. "In 1990, the Burmese people voted for change, and they didn't get it," Mr Lintner said. "With or without the NLD, that desire for change remains the same."

A history of oppression

1988 Student uprising. Aung San Suu Kyi emerges as political leader

1990 Victory in elections for NLD

1991 Aung San Suu Kyi awarded Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to peaceful change

1996 Aung San Suu Kyi attends first NLD congress

1998 300 NLD members released from prison

May 2002 Aung San Suu Kyi released after just under 20 months of house arrest

May 2003 Aung San Suu Kyi taken into "protective custody"

November 2003 Five senior NLD leaders released from house arrest after the visit of UN human-rights envoy

2007 Public protest movement led by Buddhist monks leads to crackdown and arrests of NLD activists

2009 Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to 18 months' house arrest

March 2010 Military formally annuls Aung San Suu Kyi's 1990 poll victory

Note: This was posted in The Independent News on 3 May 2010, reposted by Burma Democratic Concern (BDC)

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