Burma's evolving opposition

Image caption,
Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters will find they are not the sole voice of opposition

With Aung San Suu Kyi released and elections completed in Burma, South Asia specialist and Chatham House associate fellow Marie Lall argues that the political landscape for opposition forces could now be very different.

On 7 November, Burma went to the polls for the first time in 20 years.

A total of 37 political parties stood for more than 1,100 seats across two houses of parliament and 14 local legislative assemblies for the seven states and seven regions.

The parties included the pro-regime USDP, the NUP representing the regime which had ruled the country between 1962 and 1988, and a plethora of other, smaller parties, including the NDF - the splinter party from the pro-democracy NLD which had withdrawn from the elections and advocated a boycott.

They also included a large number of ethnic minority parties which were focused in particular on the representation of their ethnic group and were standing not across the whole country, but primarily in states where they had potential constituents.

Advance voting

The playing field was seriously tilted in favour of the USDP, which was able to field candidates in almost all constituencies, whilst the pro-democracy parties were limited to much fewer candidates, largely because they had so little time to raise funding for registration fees and election expenses and to set up and organise their parties and secure membership.

Image caption,
The playing field was seriously tilted in favour of the USDP

The elections also had the controversial feature of advance voting, whereby many officials and members of the armed forces were instructed to vote before the 7th. The elections were therefore not expected to be in any sense fair.

On the day reports from across the country show that on balance the behaviour at the polling booths allowed for a free choice.

There were also reports of infringements, and the USDP is heard to have offered new clothes, coffee and snacks as incentives.

Mostly however, especially in the urban areas, people were able to vote as they pleased. The counting in each polling station, in many but not all cases held in front of party representatives and members of the public, registered wins for opposition and ethnic minority candidates alongside those of pro-regime candidates. On the night of the 7th there was cautious optimism.

On the morning of the 8th, a number of constituencies reported that the counting of the advance votes, largely cast for the USDP quite possibly under pressure had nullified a number of wins.

Whilst the official constituency based results are still unknown, the regime has announced winning 80% of the seats, and a number of those who believed they had been elected the night before have found that they have lost to the advance ballots.

Campaign groups, the NLD, and other anti-election forces will say that this is no surprise. Yet despite this the elections still matter. Those in Rangoon report that people are upset - but they also say that the teashops are buzzing with political talk.

Politics is legal again, people are openly supportive of legally accepted opposition parties. Some parties, including the NUP, are considering taking the matter of overturned wins through advance votes to court.

'Third force'

The main outcome of the elections has been that the new opposition parties - who decided to try to bring change within the structures allowed by the regime, have gained popular support.

Image caption,
One outcome of the election is that political talk is buzzing again

Loosely known as "the third force", they were considered of little importance until now. They are cautioning that people need to press on and remind that no-one ever thought the process of change would be easy.

Their leaders are now waiting to see how the institutionalisation of the new structures will play out. Their role is to maintain the existing political space open whilst preparing to use it for the next elections in five years.

What about Aung San Suu Kyi? If she is allowed to move about now she is free, she will draw crowds of supporters.

But she will also find a very different political landscape from the one she encountered after her last release.

Whilst it can be expected that she will draw a hard line in opposition with the regime over the legality of the new constitution and the new government, it would be wise to take into account the fact that the NLD, now defunct as a political party, is no longer the sole voice in the opposition.

This mantle will have to be shared with the third force. In fact, co-operation with the new opposition forces would probably be the best strategy to unite those fighting the regime, albeit from different political positions.

Whilst Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to compromise, she risks marginalising the NLD movement in the long run with an uncompromising stand.

Those who are fighting for change within the new structures will ultimately be able to find some common ground with the regime, leaving the NLD out in the cold.

What does this scenario mean for the rest of the world, and most importantly for those outside the country or on the border?

What is fast becoming Burma's greatest fault line is the rift between the anti-regime groups inside and those outside of the country.

They want the same thing but cannot reconcile their positions.

Today this is the biggest challenge for society in Burma - the need for a convergence between the two opposition groups.

This will start only when those abroad and the NLD acknowledge the role of the new opposition parties in the struggle.

Failing this, the fight will not end up being against the regime, but against each other rendering the opposition meaningless.

Marie Lall is a South Asia specialist at the Institute of Education, University of London, and an associate fellow at Chatham House.

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