The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
GUEST COLUMN
No Good Options, Only Less Bad Ones
By RICHARD HORSEY NOVEMBER, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.8

There are no simple solutions to the dilemmas posed by next year’s election

The 2010 election, and the new Constitution that it will bring into force, has been widely condemned within Burma and internationally, with good reason. But it is essential at this juncture that all stakeholders take a strategic approach to make the best of a difficult situation.

The new Constitution was adopted last year with an implausible approval rate of 92 percent in a flawed referendum. This new charter has serious shortcomings, the most obvious of which is that it guarantees a leading political role for the military.

RICHARD HORSEY is a former ILO representative in Burma and former adviser to the UN. He is currently a Fellow at the Open Society Institute.

The election itself is unlikely to be free or fair—leading opposition figures remain in prison or under house arrest, and politically motivated arrests have increased markedly over the past year. The regime has also been moving against its armed opponents, with military operations in Karen State and the takeover of the Kokang region.

But however flawed, the election is certain to bring about significant changes. The current leadership will retire, making way for a new generation of military leaders. This may well bring a new set of problems, but also possibilities for progress. The same is true of the new political institutions that the Constitution establishes. It would be a mistake to ignore these new dynamics and opportunities to push for change.

Against this backdrop, the Burmese people, opposition parties and ethnic organizations now face some extremely difficult but critically important strategic choices. At this stage, the regime is not likely to revise the Constitution, so it is up to everyone else to decide how to respond to this situation.

There are no good options, but some are less bad than others. Essentially, stakeholders will have to choose between one of three strategies: boycott, participation, or a “mixed strategy.”

A boycott strategy would be understandable, but could be highly counterproductive. It does enable stakeholders to register their disapproval and try to weaken the credibility of the result, but it also makes it much easier for the regime to obtain the result it wants without resorting to manipulating the campaigning process or fixing the count. If the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other major opposition parties boycott the election, they relieve the regime of one of the main reasons for trying to rig the vote—a repeat of the 1990 NLD landslide. Paradoxically, this attempt to weaken the legitimacy of the election by boycotting it may actually make it easier for the regime to present the result as genuine.

A strategy of participation would force the regime to resort to more blatant manipulation. However, many Burmese fear that broad participation could be used by the regime to claim that there is broad endorsement of the process itself. This risk is real, but overstated. The credibility of the polls will be judged primarily on the basis of how they are conducted, rather than who participates. Parties that participate can continue to be critical of the process, and their objections will be no less powerful if they take part, and possibly more so. If it can be shown that the election result is fraudulent, opposition parties will be in a much stronger political position than if they choose not to participate at all.

The NLD and other parties that were handed a powerful mandate in 1990 do face a dilemma here, though. Participating in the 2010 election would mean that the NLD would have to give up on its longstanding demand that its previous victory be recognized—something that will be difficult for the party to do.

The third option, a mixed strategy, offers a way to avoid this dilemma. Opposition parties and ethnic armed groups can decline to participate in the election, but they can endorse (or even help establish) political parties that will represent the interests and aspirations of their constituencies. This is in fact the strategy already adopted by some cease-fire groups, and some influential voices in the NLD are also advocating such a strategy.

The period between now and the election will be an extremely difficult one for the political opposition and ethnic groups. They are likely to face continued harassment and, in the case of armed ethnic groups, potential military action. And the outcome of the election is unlikely to offer much hope of radical reform. But this only makes it more important to make the right strategic choices. Now is the time to look ahead, to what might be achieved in the coming generation, rather than looking back at what was not achieved in the previous one. History will give a verdict on the choices that are now made by all sides. 

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