Bitter divide in Burma's opposition

Image caption,
Hushed talk in the street is of whether the NLD was right to opt out of the election process

Burma is preparing to hold elections on 7 November amid criticisms from pro-democracy activists and Western governments that the poll will not be free, fair or inclusive.

BBC journalists are not able to enter Burma legally, but our correspondent visited undercover, and discovered that there are bitter divisions within opposition circles over how best to approach the coming poll.

Under a starry sky, with bats swooping overhead, a group of young men sat cross-legged on the floor of Rangoon's most famous landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Dressed all in white, they chanted Buddhist prayers in unison, faces turned towards the towering golden stucca in front of them.

Burma is a land shrouded in mystery, steeped in superstition. But now there is an added level of uncertainty. Burma's long suffering people are being asked to vote in an election for the first time in 20 years.

In 1990, they handed victory to Aung San Suu Kyi, though that result was never acknowledged by the ruling military.

Ms Suu Kyi is currently under house arrest, which means she is not allowed to stand as a candidate this time. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), refuses to run without her.

It was a decision based on principle. New election laws compel all political parties to re-register with an Election Commission hand picked by the current military government.

But serving prisoners are not allowed to be party members.

"We would have to expel our leader Daw Aun San Suu Kyi," the NLD party spokesman, Nyan Win, told me when we met in Rangoon.

"About 500 of our members are in jail and we would have to expel them from our party too. We can't do this."

Boycott call

Where does that leave the NLD's supporters? What should they do come election day?

Image caption,
Thanh Nyein believes opposition members have a duty to continue in the democratic process

Nyan Win said the decision is up to each individual, but that Aung San Suu Kyi had offered this advice.

"The lady said if you want to vote NLD, don't go to the polling station. She said, not to vote for any other person because you are a supporter of NLD."

In other words, boycott the poll.

The election has been meticulously planned by the man who controls everything in Burma - Senior General Than Shwe. The game is being played by his rules, according to his timetable.

Critics say the whole election process is skewed in favour of the current military regime - 25% of seats in the new parliament and regional assemblies are reserved for the armed forces.

Dozens of other officers have resigned from their posts in order to run as civilians for parties seen as proxies for the military.

Nyan Win, who is also Aung San Suu Kyi's lawyer, believes the election will produce nothing more than cosmetic change.

"After the election only military men will rule the country," he said, "changing uniform, clothes, that's all."

Western governments have expressed similar concerns, though in more diplomatic language, cautioning that the elections are unlikely to be free or fair.

'Our duty'

In Rangoon's bustling tea shops, political discussions are held cautiously. But one question dominates. Was the NLD right to opt out?

Some think not. Including, controversially, a breakaway faction of the NLD. Calling itself the National Democratic Force (NDF), the new group has registered to run on 7 November.

The group's chairman, Than Nyein, a former political prisoner now in his 70s, said the new party is determined to offer voters a choice.

"It is our duty to carry on the democratic movement, within the legal fold. It's the only tangible way to do politics. But others disagreed. So it is very difficult for us of course because we have to start from scratch amidst many accusations against us."

With an expression of baffled hurt on his face, Than Nyein said some of his former comrades in the NLD were deliberately undermining the new party's chances at the ballot box.

"Unfortunately our old colleagues who have a different opinion than us, they are urging our grass roots level activists not to join us," he said.

"Our people have been living in a very, very difficult time for the past 20 years. I can say that they are really suffocating, so if we can create at least a breathing space for them, I think we will have done something for them.

"We take this coming election as a first step in a long journey towards democracy."

But other activists say the new party is betraying the democracy movement's long struggle. They are bitter division, centred on a dilemma: does Burma's election offer people the chance of something better, however small, or is it a sham, that will leave them as powerless as ever?

More on this story