Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party disbands in Burma

By Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 7, 2010

BANGKOK -- The Burmese pro-democracy party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi chose to disband Thursday rather than recognize a government edict formally nullifying the party's victory in 1990 elections.

Burma's ruling military junta passed a law in March announcing the country's first elections since that 1990 election, which was won by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The law required all political parties to formally re-register to participate in the upcoming elections and officially voided the 1990 results.

NLD party officials, interviewed by telephone, said they could not be part of an election that denied the victory they have fought for two decades to claim. Many said participating would make them look like "puppets" of the brutal military regime that has turned Burma into one of the world's most repressive states.

Amid uncertainty about the junta's next moves, about 100 people gathered for a final meeting Friday in the NLD's closely monitored Rangoon headquarters. Party leaders described an emotional gathering to lament the passing of a party that has fought for 20 years against the junta's decision to grab power rather than let Suu Kyi's party govern after the 1990 balloting.

They said that despite the formal dissolution of the party, members resolved not to take down their red signposts, shutter the headquarters or pack up their "fighting peacock" flag, the familiar trappings of a movement that has come to represent their internationally recognized cause.

"There were more people than ever in our headquarters, old ones and young ones. And some old ladies and old men are shedding their tears," said U Win Tin, 81, a senior leader of the NLD and the chief strategist of the party since his release last year after 19 years in prison. "They are heartbroken because of the end of 20 years."

In previous weeks and months, NLD members had struggled to decide whether to boycott the upcoming vote, which has not been scheduled, and face irrelevance as a political movement, or to re-register under laws they considered unfair.

"We cannot participate in the election because it is unfair," said U Nyan Win, an NLD spokesman and the only person permitted direct communication with Suu Kyi in the lakeside compound where she has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest. "If we win, we are the puppets of the military regime."

Perhaps most pointedly, the new law bans anyone with a criminal conviction from running. This would have meant expelling both Suu Kyi and key activists who have for years languished in and out of jail.

Suu Kyi, 64, has become an international symbol of the struggle for democracy and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In what international observers decried as a sham trial, she was convicted last year of violating the terms of her home detention after a U.S. citizen swam across a lake to her compound.

While many outside analysts see the election laws as the junta's deliberate attempt to target and destroy the NLD, some within the party said they felt that they had a responsibility to their 1990 constituents as the lone bulwark of viable democratic opposition in a country that has suffered 48 years of successive military rulers, and that still ranks among the world's most repressive.

"Somehow or other we have the duty to continue if we are devoted to our political dignity," said U Khin Maung Swe, an elected member of parliament who spent 16 years in prison and in recent months was a vocal advocate of registering for the elections.

Win Tin also said that the party would continue its struggle.

"We won't be quiet, we won't be sitting in our houses," he said. "We will find our way."

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