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Burma Watchers: NLD Boycott Severe Blow to Democratization - 2004-05-17


The decision by Burma's National League for Democracy to boycott the ruling junta's constitutional convention is considered by experts to be a severe blow to democratization efforts in that country.

The boycott puts another obstacle in the way of efforts to achieve democratization in Burma. But such roadblocks have become depressingly familiar in the long, on-again, off-again process of true reconciliation between the ruling military and the pro-democracy movement.

Longtime Burma watcher John Badgley says the boycott will undoubtedly throw off Prime Minister Khin Nyunt's previously announced seven-step road map to democracy and elections for Burma. But Mr. Badgley, a retired professor who recently edited an extensive report on U.S.-Burma relations for the National Bureau of Asian Research, says both sides will continue to talk.

"I would think that what we're going to experience is some disruption of the schedule that the prime minister had laid out,' he said. "But I don't think that this is the end of negotiations, no."

Bruce Matthews, a Burma specialist at Acadia University in Canada, says the boycott means the convention will not have the legitimacy the generals crave. "It certainly indicates that that national convention isn't going to amount to what the State Peace and Development Council want it to,said Mr. Matthews. "And I imagine that we'll just have more of the same, that is, continued rule by the military."

The NLD decided to stay away from the convention when the military rulers refused to meet NLD demands that their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and deputy Tin Oo be freed from house arrest and that league offices be reopened. They were placed under house arrest one year ago after a clash between NLD supporters and a government-backed mob.

Mr. Matthews points out that the NLD boycotted the government's earlier attempt to write a constitution. "I certainly can understand why the NLD is resisting being frog-marched [forcibly marched] into the same position they were in 1993, when the last national convention was convened and collapsed, as you know, when the NLD walked out in 1995 over the charge that they were just a rubber stamp," he said. "And I suspect that they feel the same way now."

The NLD won elections in 1990, but the generals nullified the results and have held onto to power ever since. The basic power lineup has not changed much since that time. But Khin Nyunt's ascendancy to the prime minister's post one year ago gave some analysts hope that the political logjam would finally be broken. Mr. Badgley says his announcement of the road map to elections and democracy fueled that hope.

"He's probably the brightest, the most complex, and certainly the most international of the top leaders," commented Mr. Badgley. "He's attracted around him a secondary leadership of people who are now known as colonels and brigadier generals or even major generals who are people who would not have been in top office under previous leaders."

In the lead up to the constitutional convention, there were numerous reports that Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate and the country's most prominent pro-democracy figure, was to soon be freed from house arrest. Analysts say the Burmese government's continuing refusal to release her is fueling political pressure in the U.S. Congress for sanctions imposed against Burma last year to be renewed.

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