On Friday, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma's main pro-democracy opposition party, will decide on whether to end its one-year hiatus in legal limbo and contest upcoming by-elections. If it does opt to re-register as a party, it will not only restore its own legal status, but also bestow legitimacy upon a quasi-civilian government still struggling to shed the stigma of its khaki-clad past. But beyond this, the decision could mark a significant step toward restoring the rule of law in Burma.
The need for such a step should be obvious to all. Decades of arbitrary rule by the military have turned the country’s courtrooms into mere processing centers for the persecution of dissidents. Draconian decrees are routinely used as tools of oppression, and economic regulations exist only to reinforce the privileges of corrupt senior military leaders and their cronies.
Human rights abuses have become an endemic feature of Burmese life for the simple reason that citizens have no rights. Farmers can be forced off their land and children can be forcibly recruited as cannon fodder to fight in endless wars against ethnic minorities because, in the eyes of their rulers, they are little more than chattel to be disposed of at will.
But Burma’s lack of any legal foundation has not only undermined the lives of ordinary citizens: it has also left its rulers exposed to forces that could threaten their hold on power. The Saffron Revolution of 2007 served as a reminder of the precariousness of illegitimate rule, which is no more stable than a bamboo hut waiting to be swept away in a storm of political unrest. That’s why, the following year, Burma’s ruling junta pressed ahead with a rigged referendum on its notorious “Nargis Constitution,” forced on the country in the midst of its worst natural disaster in recorded history.
All of this brings us to the present moment, when Burma’s new government (“elected” last year in a vote nobody believes was free or fair) is still regarded as only semi-legitimate, at best.
Since assuming power in March, the administration of President Thein Sein, a former general and prime minister under the old regime, has been on a charm offensive, relaxing controls over the media, reaching out to NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and even suspending construction of the unpopular Chinese-backed Myitsone dam, in a nod to “the will of the people.”
Notably, however, none of these moves constitute an irreversible shift in Burma’s political direction, precisely because they are primarily expressions of the executive’s political will, rather than legally mandated actions. Even a new law introduced by Parliament legalizing trade unions can’t be seen as part of an overall reformist agenda, since another draft law on land rights—which would affect a far larger segment of the population—represents a throwback to the most regressive policies of the past.
This, then, is where the NLD comes in. If the party does decide to run in the by-elections after renewing its legal status under the recently revised political party registration law, it could, even with a tiny handful of seats in Parliament, use its stature as Burma’s most widely recognized political organization to increase scrutiny of the legislative process in Naypyidaw.
There are, of course, well-founded fears that the powers that be are merely trying to co-opt the NLD to legitimize a Constitution that guarantees the military a decisive role in Burma’s politics. But as Suu Kyi said at a press conference on Monday, “Based on our beliefs, we have to take risks at the appropriate time.”
Suu Kyi also made it clear what those beliefs are. “A crucial issue is the rule of law, without which we cannot make progress in the issues of human rights, the release of political prisoners, domestic peace efforts or social and economic development in our country,” she said, speaking to reporters on the one-year anniversary of her release from house arrest.
After decades of rule by fear, it is reassuring to know that there is still a strong voice for restoring the rule of law in Burma. If the country’s legislators can be made to hear that voice, there’s hope yet.