YANGON, Myanmar — Many residents of Myanmar's largest city Tuesday backed the decision by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's party to boycott elections, but others called it a blunder leaving little choice in the military-organized balloting.
In a bold gamble, the National League for Democracy on Monday decided to opt out of the country's first election in two decades. The party, which swept the 1990 vote but was barred from taking power, now faces dissolution under new election laws imposed by the junta.
The NLD's pullout will further call into question the credibility of the vote, and with it the junta's "roadmap for democracy" to transition from 48 years of military rule – which critics say will only entrench the military's supporters in power. The government has said the polls will be held this year, although no date has been set.
Last week, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, denounced the laws guiding the election as undemocratic and recommended the boycott, for which the NLD's 113 executive members then voted.
Despite tight controls that make people leery of commenting on politics in Myanmar, many Yangon residents approved of the decision.
"(Suu Kyi) is our icon and our leader, and she is the only person who can reflect the feelings of the public. We are with her and we support her decision," said 55-year-old nurse, Khin Zaw.
"The majority of the people will follow the decision because of their deep respect for (Suu Kyi), and the legitimacy and credibility of the elections will be thoroughly undermined," said Thakin Chan Tun, a retired ambassador and veteran politician.
There is no requirement that citizens in Myanmar vote in elections, so the move could prompt opposition supporters to stay away from the polls. Still, many supporters of the party saw the decision as a setback – not just for hope of reform in Myanmar but for the NLD, which Suu Kyi helped found 22 years ago in the wake of a failed popular uprising against military rule in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
"It is devastating that the NLD has chosen to boycott the election. Who should I vote for when the election comes?" said 46-year-old university teacher Myint Myint Thein.
"I think the NLD has made a major blunder by not contesting in the election. We are all set to vote for NLD candidates and now we are left without any choice," said Mie Mie, a jewelry shop owner.
Such dismay at a lack of choice may indicate that voters will be afraid to exercise their right not to vote in a country tightly controlled by the military.
The party, which has long faced fierce repression, now risks being further marginalized. As well as barring Suu Kyi and other convicted political prisoners from taking part, the new election laws stipulate that parties failing to register for the upcoming vote are to be dissolved.
The party's leaders and members have often faced detention and closure of party offices. Now the country's principal opposition movement could face virtual eradication since it will no longer be a legal organization.
"Without parliamentary representation, the NLD runs the risk of losing its substantive political following and being reduced to a 'silent majority,'" said Professor Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at the University of Canberra. "But it's a crafty political decision and it is fundamentally a moral one."
Since the election laws were only enacted this month, there has been little time for parties to form and mobilize, and so the election lineup in this ethnically diverse nation is still unclear. But it appears the military will field a party against a number of small ones, some of them pro-military.
"The NLD's boycott represents an act of bold leadership and a call for solidarity among actors in civil society who are opposed to the regime. But it is a dangerous and risky strategy," said John Dale, a conflict resolution specialist at Virginia's George Mason University.
The junta hopes holding the vote will ease pressure for political reforms and accommodation with the country's pro-democracy movement. Yet international doubts over the fairness of the polls are now likely deepen despite recent efforts by the United States and other governments to engage more actively with the junta.
"The NLD's boycott is a call to the international community to shake a stick where the carrot of recent political engagement has failed," Dale said.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that U.S. officials "understand and respect" the NLD decision. "This is a reflection of the unwillingness of the government in Burma to take what we thought were the necessary steps to open up the political process and to engage in serious dialogue," Crowley said.