On Point No. 13
(This article is a translation of the original Burmese language version that ISP-Myanmar posted on its Facebook page on March 21, 2023.)
The Central Executive Committee meeting of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), held on March 16 and 17, 2023, made a momentous decision that it will not re-register as a political party under the new Political Party Registration law of 2023. Explaining its decision, the SNLD cites that the junta authorities have yet to announce a date for the General Election, and that the party finds substantial security challenges to travel to consult with party members (mainly in Kayah and Kachin States).
∎ Preliminary analysis
This is the second time in history that the SNLD has decided not to register under the existing system. The first time was in response to the 2008 constitution adopted by State Development and Peace Council (SPDC) which the SNLD disapproved of, refusing to contest the 2010 General Election. The SNLD refused to register as a political party, and was subsequently legally annulled. At the time, the junta’s Election Commission had adopted a new political party law that instructed parties to re-register within sixty days of the law’s enactment or face deregistration. The SNLD, known for its struggle for democracy and ethnic self-determination, which had won the second-most seats in the 1990 elections and the third-most seats (both assemblies combined) in the 2015 elections, could again be annulled in the near future.
The new political party law of the junta, enacted in late January 2023, is a draconian law that poses serious challenges to political parties to resist the regime’s patronage and manipulation. The SNLD’s decision can be construed as a valiant refutation of the military council’s legitimacy while the entire population of Myanmar is struggling with intensifying civil conflict and open violence. On the other hand, the new law demonstrates that the junta has no intention to move toward a smooth political transition by treating civilian political forces who truly represent the public as equal partners and by sharing political space with them in the process. The motivation of the military is more clearly seen as an attempt to maintain dominance over other actors, treating other political players as its subordinates or proxies. The planned form of elections will be difficult to accept as a legitimate ‘political exit’ for the junta. It will neither mend worsening civil-military relationships nor relieve popular grievances against the military.
The SNLD’s decision not to register as a political party under the junta’s new law seems to be neither a mere populist political stance nor a policy to avoid the belligerent online attacks against them. The decision rather, is important in keeping with the party’s historical traditions, and it can be argued that the decision demonstrates SNLD’s continued commitment to Politics of Integrity and Commitment. ‘Integrity’ here refers to the SNLD undertaking its political actions based on “principles” and “values”. The SNLD seems to be pursuing a goal of “conflict transformation” rather than “conflict resolution” by attempting to address the underlying causes and power relationships of the Myanmar crisis, rather than aiming for resolution of the immediate causes of the conflict.
The SNLD’s decision seems to be a rejection of the military’s claim that the coup occurred due to irregularities in the 2020 elections. The SNLD calls for a fundamental system change, to not simply acquiesce to the demands of certain political forces and regional countries to resolve the crisis by the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the recognition of election results, and convening of parliament. Sai Lek, General Secretary of the SNLD, responded to a VOA interview on March 19 that “rather than changing the government, (I mean) the system needs to be changed. The whole CEC of SNLD understands that we need a system change that is important, and we will put it forward to the whole of the party membership”. This is clearly reflected in the late SNLD’s chairman, Khun Htun Oo’s vision of fundamental system change — “until the establishment of a genuine federal union as a historic duty”. The party stands on that principle and stands with dignity.
The SNLD is committed to uphold the desire and interests of all Myanmar’s population, including the people of the Shan state. The journey to building a federal union in Myanmar is riddled with frustrations and disappointments, especially for non-Bamar ethnic leaders who may be hesitant to get involved in inter-Bamar conflicts. In history, whenever there are non-negotiable conflicts arised between Bamar actors, especially those that are non-negotiable, can disrupt progress and even halt union-building efforts altogether. Therefore, some non-Bamar ethnic leaders argue that the solutions to the Myanmar crisis should be based on addressing the dual-dimensionality of the problem: the mainland Bamar crisis and the non-Bamar struggles. Only after each dimension of the crisis has been addressed can non-Bamar ethnic groups enter into a comprehensive peace with mainland Bamar. While this lack of confidence in union-building collaboration is the prevailing mood, the SNLD has never confined itself to Shan politics alone and instead has always pursued nation-building goals by engaging in the collective struggles of the entire country. This is the SNLD’s commitment to Myanmar.
The SNLD is also committed to its alliance. Though the SNLD maintains its focus and dedication, some of its allies have changed since coming in to power. They have since treated the SNLD unequally as a junior partner. Since 1988 the SNLD and the National League for Democracy (NLD) together struggled against all odds fraternally, hand in hand. However this relationship changed in 2015 when the NLD was elected to power. The NLD’s attitude toward the SNLD was one of superiority, and the NLD began offering the SNLD only official positions and titles rather than to cooperate and coordinate on policy formation and deployment.
Sai Nyunt Lwin, the SNLD’s current chairman, once recounted his experience of such a patronizing treatment from the NLD as a political lesson to learn from. Despite this, the SNLD remains committed to keeping its political principles intact and disciplining its political messages, rather than resorting to scandalizing its allies. In the wake of the 2021 military coup, during the harshest oppression against the NLD, the SNLD decided to stand together with the NLD and other allies, including the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) and UNA++. The SNLD refuses to allow the junta to dictate its destiny, and its decision to not re-register as a political party is evidence of this principle.
The SNLD serves as a good example of a political party that displays political maturity by staying committed to its principles of truthfulness, on union-building and maintain strong relationships with its allies, rather than seeking individual end-goals or reacting to setbacks in a disgruntled manner. Sai Lek, General Secretary of the SNLD, told of the same spirit in an interview with VOA: “We are preparing our way together with our existing alliance, with our future alliances, with individuals, and with organizations, towards a federal democratic system”.
∎ Scenario forecast
The SNLD has currently decided not to re-register as a political party, however it could reverse its decision if the political climate became favorable to do so. The SNLD also chose to not register as a political party under the previous junta in 2010, but subsequently re-registered in 2012, after witnessing some promising developments of the Thein Sein administration’s liberalization and after consultation with its NLD ally.
The junta could exert pressure or otherwise threaten and harrass the SNLD for its decision to not register. The international community should keep a watchful eye on the situation and should warn the junta against politically punishing the SNLD. Various forms of diplomacy and international pressure are crucial to make change in Myanmar a reality, but the real agent of change remains the political and civic forces inside the country. It must be recognized that these civic forces are innovative and resilient to struggle, survive, and grow again.
Regardless of whether the SNLD exists in the form of an official political party or not, the international community must continue to value its voice and listen to it. The SNLD will continue to stand as a formidable and commendable political force that should be included in the all-inclusive dialogue towards a sustainable solution for Myanmar.