Saturday, February 16, 2008

Don't Push NLD into a Corner

Irrawaddy Online, Saturday, February 16, 2008

Don't Push NLD into a Corner


The present political crisis in Burma could be a model from William L. Ury and Richard Smoke’s political science thesis, “Anatomy of a Crisis”—a situation of “high stakes, short time, high uncertainty and narrowing options.”

In the pragmatic world of realpolitik, it means the opposition movement in Burma is now facing a serious predicament. When the military regime made the surprise announcement to set a timeline for a referendum in May and a general election in 2010, the opposition groups were caught off guard.

The junta decisively moved ahead with its own “Road Map” and ignored the persistent calls of opposition groups and the UN-led international community to modify the draft constitution and make the political process inclusive.

The political moral ground of the opposition movement, inside the country as well as in exile, has been based on the legitimacy of the 1990 election results in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory that has never been honored.

The opposition activists are now forced to prove the victory of 1990 election remains relevant in upcoming months. The stakes rise, indeed.

Several grassroots opposition groups, including the influential 88 Generation Students group and the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks, recently vowed to launch a "Vote No” campaign against the regime's constitution. But many activists privately admit that the time crunch makes it difficult for them to mobilize a nationwide movement.
The military government's statement regarding the referendum and subsequent elections was vague and shrouded with uncertainties.

Furthermore, the regime has not revoked Law 5/96 of 1996, which provides for up to 20 years imprisonment for anyone who criticizes the government’s national convention and its constitution drafting effort.

To add to the dilemma, many ordinary people do not understand what a “Vote No” campaign really means—whether they are expected to boycott the referendum by shunning the poll stations or they have to physically vote against the constitution.

At the end of the day, no one knows what the regime will do if the public votes against their draft constitution.
"Will they spend another 20 years rewriting another constitution?” questioned a private tutor in Rangoon. "If so, enough is enough. I would rather just go for the flawed constitution."

The high level of uncertainty appears to weaken the opposition's message and game plan.
Even with such high stakes, the time crunch and all the uncertainties, the crisis would be less severe if the opposition had options.

"People must stand up against the referendum and say no to the regime's constitution," said Aung Thu Nyein, a Burmese analyst in exile. "I support the actions of the grassroots organizations, but they must make it clear that it is not a boycott against the referendum. The public must go to the polling stations and vote ‘No.’”

Several opposition activists and journalists have taken it a step further. They have called on the NLD to announce a clear policy to direct the public on the referendum issue and to take the initiative in the "Vote No” campaign.

Aung Thu Nyein disagrees. “It is not feasible to urge the NLD to lead the public in mobilizing a Vote No” campaign. The NLD must be flexible,” he said.

However, as long as the opposition activists and media view the NLD as the vanguard of the democracy movement, they will continually push the party to lead with a resolution at every turn.

But whether or not the NLD's current leadership—not forgetting the implications of Aung San Suu Kyi's long absence—remains at the forefront of the democracy movement will be called into question. The nature of the September uprising indicated that the NLD was not playing a leading role.

More importantly, it is a time for different political forces to play significant positions with a mature understanding of one another. The NLD should not run the risk of staking their political future on viewing the referendum—step four of the seven-step “Road Map”—as the final battleground.

“We have stated clearly from the beginning that we are against the undemocratic nature of the national convention and the draft constitution," Nyan Win, the NLD spokesman, announced in the wake of the government’s statement. “We will probably release our policy by the end of this month. But we don't think the referendum is the final fight for us.”

The NLD will continue to condemn the regime's draft constitution as unacceptable and to demand a free and fair referendum, but at the same time they want to appear to keep all options open, instead of totally rejecting the government’s Road Map or openly advocating a “Vote No” campaign.

Short of a better alternative, it seems to be the most pragmatic policy the party can adopt.

If the NLD sees the referendum as a final showdown and walks away from the Road Map, the party will very likely be sidelined from mainstream politics in future. If the NLD decide to engage in a “do or die” fight, the regime will gladly get into the ring and work at putting the opposition party out of action for good.

In truth, the NLD seems to be aware of this scenario and are determined to remain on legal ground.

"If the public approves the draft constitution in a credible referendum, we will respect the public's decision," said Nyan Win.

The NLD spokesman even hinted that the party does not reject the possibility of running for a fresh election in 2010, if the public decides to go ahead with the Road Map.

“Burma's road to democracy would be long term, independent of our activists' wishes for radical change," said Tin Maung Than, a well-known Burmese writer and analyst in exile. "The military, as a whole and as an institution, is not in a position to accept such a change. Burma needs some structural adjustment to lure a significant part of the military to cooperate with the people."

Naturally, the public—led by grassroots activists—must push in that direction. A mass movement will always be needed to bring about that change.

The people of Burma should support the “Vote No” campaign against the draft constitution. If the fight is won, it may prompt a shake up in Naypyidaw. The military government would be forced to reconfigure their options. Combined with international pressure, a new opportunity for dialogue might present itself.

Whether this particular fight is won or not, the NLD must prepare to go on. In politics, a crisis can be cleverly managed with a well calculated strategic move.

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