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Boycott of Burmese elections draws criticism

NLD boycott of Burmese elections draws strong criticism. Suspected coup attempt in Guinea Bissau. Sudan opposition pullout throws elections into doubt. ICC to probe Kenya post-election violence. Bangladesh to commence trial of 1971 war crimes. All this and more in today's update.
Josephine Whitaker
1 April 2010

Sharp divisions have emerged among supporters of Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the wake of its decision to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled later this year. The NLD’s decision about whether to register under controversial new election laws imposed by Burma’s ruling military junta has sparked heated debate amongst its supporters since the party’s iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said she would not even think of registering the party under the new laws.

Although many in the international community have expressed respect the move, the influential Irrawaddy magazine quoted unnamed European and Southeast Asian diplomats criticising the party’s “disappointing decision”.  A security analyst at a Thai university declared that “the NLD (has) played into Than Shwe’s hands”.

The unanimous decision not to register under the new laws, thereby boycotting the elections, was announced on Monday after a meeting of the party’s senior leadership. This step will almost definitely lead to the party’s dissolution by the junta, and has already led to harsh criticism of its decision.

The date of Burma's forthcoming elections, the first in twenty years, is yet to be confirmed.

The openSecurity verdict: The NLD’s decision to boycott the forthcoming elections should come as little surprise. Registration under the new electoral laws and participation in the polls would require the party to not only shun its iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, but also accept an annulment of the results of the 1990 election, which the NLD won with a landslide 82% of the popular vote.

The new electoral laws state that, among other things, a political party will be denied registration if any of its members have ever been convicted in a court, a condition that has prompted an agonised internal debate in the NLD. The laws, slammed by rights groups as unjust and undemocratic, were seen by many as a direct attempt to force the NLD to expel its figurehead.

In an editorial published in The Washington Post on Tuesday, U Win Tin, one of the NLD’s founders and a member of its central executive committee, set out the rationale for his party’s decision. According to Win Tin, who was imprisoned for nineteen years, expulsion of Suu Kyi and acceptance of the junta’s decision to annul the 1990 results would be unacceptable to the NLD.

Registration would also require the endorsement of the new constitution, which was unilaterally drafted by the generals in 2008. Describing the document as a sham that is “designed to legalise permanent military dictatorship”, Win Tin concludes that “true democracy will not come from this process.”

Critics of this decision have not been slow to come forward. Many feel that any democratic opening, no matter how small, should be taken advantage of in Burma. Some have suggested that, in refusing to participate in the elections, the NLD is forgetting the greater good of democratisation in Burma. But an election under laws which were drafted solely by the generals and give sweeping unilateral powers to a handpicked election commission is unlikely to hail democracy in Burma, regardless of participation. Indeed, the requirement that no prisoner, including the many thousands of political prisoners currently languishing in Burmese jails, can be member of a regitered party is a deliberate move to exclude key opposition figures from the 'democratic' process.

Other commentators feel that the NLD should take part in the elections because it still commands extensive public support and has a real chance of winning a majority. Given the junta’s record – particularly its behaviour after the 1990 election – there is no reason to expect that it would permit the NLD to win the majority it may be entitled to.

One criticism that does hold water, however, is that the NLD’s decision not to contest the elections leaves many thousands of voters in a difficult position: to boycott the election or to vote anyway, just for an alternative party? The NLD was born of the popular democracy movement of 1988, and has been at the forefront of Burma’s pro-democracy movement ever since. Its absence in this year’s elections presents voters with a dilemma, which many are describing as a risky gamble. The party’s probable dissolution raises questions about its future in Burmese politics.

But the NLD has only maintained its position as a champion of democracy in Burma through commitment to the principles of democracy and its resistance to the junta. Although this commitment has cost the party greatly over the last two decades, and is likely to cost it more in future, it would be a greater loss to compromise this standpoint.

The decision is likely to bring more trouble for the NLD, with leaders already warning of a fresh crackdown on its activities. Even more restrictive media laws announced recently by the Press Scrutiny Board, offer a preview of the way in which the junta is likely to attempt to silence the party, once it ceases to be legally extant. The party’s leaders have vowed that the NLD will survive as a political movement, with spokesman Nyan Win promising that “(the) party can die, but not (the) political movement.”

Suspected coup attempt in Guinea Bissau

Soldiers have detained the Prime Minister of Guinea Bissau, Carloes Gomes Junior, in what is thought to be a military coup, witnesses report.

Shortly before Gomes was detained, soldiers also seized  Bubi Na Tchuto, a former navy chief suspected of a failed coup attempt in 2008, who was taking refuge at United Nations headquarters in the capital.

The impoverished west African state has since independence been plagued by military coups and political instability. In the last two years alone, a failed coup attempt on former president Joao Bernardo Vieira was followed by his assassination in May last year at the hands of an unhappy army faction.

Sudan opposition boycott throws elections into doubt

The withdrawal of a leading candidate from the national elections scheduled later this month has cast the credibility of the Sudanese elections into doubt. Yasir Arman, candidate of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) which dominates southern Sudan, and chief rival to current presidenr Omar el-Bashir, announced late on Wednesday night that he was withdrawing from the race, less than two weeks before the country’s first multi-party elections in almost 25 years. Arman cited “electoral irregularities”  that will skew the elections in favour of the ruling  National Congress Party.

A United States’ envoy, Scott Gration, has today initiated talks in Khartoum in an attempt to resolve the situation.

The elections, scheduled for 11 April, are a central plank of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord, which ended over twenty years of civil war in Sudan. Many analysts believe that Arman’s withdrawal from the race will hand victory to Bashir.

ICC to probe Kenya post-election violence

The International Criminal Court (ICC) yesterday announced that it would open an investigation into the post-election violence that rocked Kenya in 2007-2008.  The ICC said in a statement on Wednesday that there is “reasonable basis to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed on Kenyan territory.” The post-election violence displaced more than 350,000 people and killed almost 1,500 while several hundreds more are believed to have been raped during the crisis.

The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said he has a list of twenty potential suspects who will be invesitgated in connection with the violence. He today pledged to focus the investigation on victims, demonstrating a certain lack of faith in the Kenyan justice system.

It was Kenya’s failure to set up a national tribunal to look into the violence that led the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, to hand names of key suspects to the ICC. The current Kenyan justice minister has welcomed the move, and given assurances that witnesses will be protected under the country’s laws.

The ICC aims to complete the investigation this year and commence trials in 2012.

Bangladesh to try 1971 war crimes suspects

The Bangladesh government this week announced the formation of a tribunal to try those suspected of committing war crimes during the country’s 1971 liberation war. The announcement was made to coincide with the country’s independence day on 25 March.

The tribunal, which will try Bangladeshis accused of collaborating with the Pakistani army in 1971, is likely to involve a large number of politicians active in Bangladesh, including members of the country’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party. Others accused of war crimes include members of a key BNP ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami. The Jamaat-e-Islami secretary general, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid, today claimed that no members of his party were involved in atrocities committed in 1971, adding that “the government is deliberately stage-managing a drama to destroy its political rivals.”

The UN resident coordinator in Dhaka, Renata Lok Dessallien, said today that the UN hopes the trials will be conducted in line with international standards. But despite government assurances of fair trials, in a country with a notorious record of granting impunity to state officials accused of human rights violations such hopes may be in vain.

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