Page last updated at 14:37 GMT, Tuesday, 30 March 2010 15:37 UK

Boycott hits Burma election credibility

By Soe Win Than
BBC Burmese

NLD supporter wear a T-shirt with Aung San Suu Kyi's picture on 29 March 2010
The NLD says the polls are aimed at further entrenching military power

The conclusion reached by Burma's main opposition group, the National League for Democracy, came as no surprise.

Faced with a requirement to expel its most influential leader, the party opted not to contest the elections, the first Burma will have in 20 years.

The election laws bar anyone serving a prison term from standing in the polls. They also ban those with criminal convictions from becoming members of political parties.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate and general secretary of the NLD, was convicted of breaching the terms of her house arrest after an American entered her compound last year.

Both she and the NLD are convinced that the election laws are designed especially to exclude them and more than 2,000 political prisoners.

And if the party were to enter the polls, it would mean accepting the junta's annulment of the results of the 1990 election. The NLD overwhelmingly won those polls but was never allowed to govern.

U Win Tin, a senior leader of the party said: "If we do not register for the elections, the party will lose limbs, but if we register, we will lose the head. We can replace legs and limbs, but not the head."

Constitution: 25% of seats in parliament reserved for the military
Constitution: More than 75% approval required for any constitutional change
Election law: Those with criminal convictions cannot take part - ruling out many activists
Election law: Members of religious orders cannot take part - ruling out monks
Election commission: Handpicked by Burma's military government

The other major complaint of the NLD and pro-democracy parties is the set-up of the future parliament.

Only 75% of parliamentary members will be elected and the remaining 25% will be army officers appointed by the commander in chief.

The commander in chief will be the most powerful figure, with the military's supremacy constitutionally guaranteed.

The NLD's calls to change undemocratic clauses in the constitution have been repeatedly ignored.

There are some within the NLD who argue that the party could still become a competitive force in the future parliament and could prevent the legislative body from coming under the absolute control of the military and its affiliates.

But their voice is the minority.

Few options

Though the NLD and a few other key parties have decided to boycott the polls, there are groups planning to set up political parties.

These groups include former activists and politicians. They argued that after waiting for 20 years the opening, however small, should not be missed.

General Than Shwe salutes troops on 27 March 2010
Some groups say they have no choice but to work with the military

"This is not time to talk about what the military want and what the democratic forces want, but to work from what is available at the moment," said former political prisoner and student activist Phyo Min Thein.

However, public opinion towards these groups is not particularly favourable. A Rangoon resident told the BBC that some of these groups were seen as opportunists playing along with the junta for personal gain.

Pro-junta groups are also planning to fill the numbers in parliament. Even some cabinet ministers have been campaigning openly for votes.

In the absence of the NLD, the voters are at a loss to decide who they can trust.

NLD nuisance

The United Nations has asked the Burmese government to create an atmosphere where all politicians could participate in the elections. It called for the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

It is not clear whether the junta really wants to exclude the NLD from the elections.

But the NLD still enjoys huge support in the country and a large number of its representatives in parliament would be a nuisance for the generals.

The NLD's boycott may perhaps give the generals a convenient excuse to tell the world that the NLD did not take part of its own volition.

But it is unlikely the international community will have failed to notice that the laws are designed to exclude many democracy activists.

The NLD's decision not to participate means that the credibility of the junta's polls has disappeared even before they are held.

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