BANGKOK - Myanmar's military rulers have launched a major new crackdown
on the country's main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party,
fueling widespread speculation that the hardline State Peace and Development
Council (SPDC) intends to eliminate its harassed and beleaguered rival completely
within the next 12 months.
According to Burmese-language notes from a January meeting between Myanmar's
police chief Major-General Khin Yi and top commanders across the country reviewed
by Asia Times Online, the national police corps was specifically instructed
to undermine the NLD using stealth and intelligence rather than their traditional
use of brute force.
That message hasn't completely trickled down, however. Young NLD activists
and students have been detained and questioned, while others have even been
sentenced to several years' imprisonment on trumped-up charges. Some key leaders
of the student movement have also been attacked and one recently died from the
injuries sustained during a particularly brutal battering.
In the past, Myanmar's police have been accused of planting drugs, especially
heroin, on young activists and students, then arresting them and sentencing
them to several years of imprisonment. These tactics are being complemented
with a more subtle strategy aimed at crippling the NLD's ability to operate
and recruit, according to the recent police meeting notes.
The junta has recently stepped up its pressure on the NLD, harassing more than
50 members into resigning from the party, including a senior member of the Mandalay
branch. "The authorities have put immense pressure on them to resign, and
they have succumbed to it," a senior NLD party member said in an interview.
"It is one of the key ways the SPDC is trying to weaken the party."
Information Minister Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan last month warned the NLD
that it could be "outlawed" on charges of cooperating with so-called
terrorist organizations. "The government has strong evidence that the NLD
was involved with anti-government groups as well as terrorist organizations
that would justify it being declared illegal," he recently told a press
A Western diplomat based in Yangon said, "This threat in intended to keep
up the pressure on the NLD's leaders." For now, the diplomat said, "it
suits the SPDC to have the NLD registered, but impotent".
Myanmar-watchers contend that the junta's long-term aim is to marginalize charismatic
opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest, and
move to eliminate her party as part of its so-called "national reconciliation"
process. To some degree, the junta has successfully portrayed Suu Kyi, a winner
of the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent approach to political confrontation,
as part of the problem because of her unwillingness to compromise in some diplomatic
The SPDC-led National Convention, which the NLD has boycotted and the junta
has stacked with pliant representatives from the country's many ethnic-minority
groups, is set to resume drawing up principles for a new constitution in November.
The junta is expected to hand power to a civilian incarnation of itself after
the constitution is finally promulgated.
Foreign Minister Nyan Win told his counterparts at the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) retreat in Bali last month that Myanmar's new constitution
should be completed by the end of next year.
"[Senior General] Than Shwe's strategy is clear, before the constitution
is drafted and put to a referendum, all the pro-democracy parties and ethnic
groups - both those with ceasefires and those who haven't - will be targeted
and eliminated, or at the very least made impotent," said Win Min, an independent
Myanmar analyst based in Thailand.
If so, it's not an altogether new tack. Two years ago, SPDC leader Than Shwe
ordered the junta's Union Solitary Development Association (USDA) - the junta's
national grassroots organization, which is tipped to become the SPDC's political
arm after the new constitution comes into force - to harass NLD members violently
across the country.
In a confidential government document obtained by Asia Times Online, Than Shwe
ordered the USDA to "eliminate the activities of the opposition; destroy
the opposition's business so that they lose their property and market; create
splits among opposition family members; get opposition members to sever their
relationship with the group; and frighten and intimidate the most stubborn members
of the opposition to flee from its membership".
That hard-knocks plan was hatched soon after the savage May 2003 attack on
Suu Kyi's traveling caravan, where USDA thugs killed scores, if not hundreds,
of her supporters. The NLD leader had been traveling in the northern region
of the country to reinvigorate her party, and massive crowds had gathered to
hear her speak.
Aung Lynn Htut, Myanmar's ambassador to Washington, defected to the US this
year. He has since spoken out about Than Shwe's plan to obliterate the NLD by
the end of the year. After his defection, the former top SPDC diplomat told
opposition scholars based in the United States and the United Kingdom that he
had received reliable information that the junta had ordered the "routing"
of NLD members and their families.
Analysts say the increased harassment and intimidation of the NLD are being
driven by both internal and external factors. "Than Shwe has become increasingly
concerned over the last months of the possibility of pro-democracy demonstrations
erupting, especially in Rangoon [Yangon]," Win Min said. "That's one
of the reasons for retreating to the new capital, Pyinmana."
Sources close to the SPDC's top leadership say that Than Shwe has apprehensively
monitored recent international and regional news from his fortified bunker in
Pyinmana, including the street rallies that last month drove Thai Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra to abandon his political post, and Nepalese King Gyanendra's
recent acquiescence to more violent street protests where demonstrators called
for a return to democracy.
These events have "rocked the old man, who now more than ever fears a
repeat of the mass pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988 which forced Ne Win
to stand down", said a close confidant of Than Shwe. In response, the SPDC
leader has reportedly ordered police to crack down on even the faintest signs
of political ferment.
Than Shwe, whom the confidant said surfs the Internet every morning in his
military headquarters, had been particularly piqued by the NLD's new initiatives
and renewed assertiveness. The NLD has increased its political activities coinciding
with SPDC Prime Minister General Soe Win recent telling Malaysian Foreign Minister
Syed Hamid Alber that Suu Kyi was now "irrelevant" to Myanmar's political
According to NLD leaders, the party has recently come around to the idea that
Myanmar's often splintered pro-democracy groups need to present a much more
united front against the SPDC. As such, they have recently made overtures to
other democratic groups, including student- and ethnic-minority-led political
parties that operate along the country's war-torn border areas, according to
diplomatic sources in Yangon.
In recent months, the NLD has held a series of grassroots meetings across the
country and the party's senior provincial officials recently traveled to Yangon
for high-level consultations. One new move: policy review committees were recently
established as the NLD looks for ways to press its agenda more effectively while
highlighting the SPDC's many policy failures.
"Our latest policy is focusing on how to solve the country's humanitarian
crisis through dialogue and compromise," NLD spokesman Myint Thein said
in an interview.
Indeed, the NLD in February offered the SPDC a sort of olive branch through
a press statement released to coincide with Union Day, which offered to recognize
the military regime as Myanmar's "de facto" government on the condition
that the junta eventually allowed a "people's parliament" to convene.
"The SPDC would be in charge of the transitional period until a government
was formed by the parliament made up of the representatives elected in the national
elections held on May 27, 1990," the statement said. The NLD won more than
80% of the vote in that election, which the junta declared null and void.
Typically, the SPDC at first ignored the NLD's compromise. Last month, Information
Minister Kyaw Hsan flat out rejected the fig leaf, saying that the SPDC would
not hold any dialogue with the NLD outside of the national convention, which
the NLD has boycotted as undemocratic. "The NLD no longer enjoys the support
of the people and it does not represent them anymore," Kyaw Hsan said.
The NLD's new drive to reassert itself has reportedly enraged Than Shwe, who
has sanctioned an all-out campaign to crush the party. "There is a definite
trend here: when the NLD confronts the junta and reminds them that they are
in effect the only legitimate government, the SPDC reaction is to pressure and
further weaken the NLD," said political analyst Win Min.
He sees parallels to when the SPDC cracked down on the NLD in 1999 and 2000
after the opposition party established the Committee Representing the People's
Parliament and moved to convene the body on the authority of the SPDC-annulled
1990 election results.
Then, many NLD members of parliament and senior members were arrested or forced
to resign their positions in the party, and many fled the country. NLD offices
were raided and shuttered, with SPDC officials seizing the party's internal
"We expect worse to follow as the military authorities go all-out to eliminate
us by the end of the year," said a senior NLD official on condition of
anonymity because of his fear of reprisals for speaking to the foreign media.
For the international community, any attempt to de-register and abolish the
NLD would be widely condemned, even by the SPDC's erstwhile allies in China
and Thailand. The SPDC's recent statements insisting that the NLD and Suu Kyi
were irrelevant to the country's political future have gone over like a lead
balloon inside the 10-member ASEAN.
More important, among Myanmar's people, judging by the increasingly disfranchised
chatter of its population, the battered and bruised NLD remains the country's
only legitimate political entity and real hope for democratic change. As the
SPDC moves to eliminate the NLD forcibly, the ruling junta could cause itself
more problems than it solves.
Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the
BBC. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.