BANGKOK—Myanmar’s military government took another major step in its ongoing campaign to cripple its political opponents on Wednesday, dissolving dozens of opposition parties including that of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to meet a registration deadline ahead of elections.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, or NLD, was one of 40 parties ordered dissolved in an official announcement by the election commission published Wednesday in the state-controlled press. The NLD governed Myanmar with overwhelming majorities in Parliament from 2015 to 2021 before being overthrown by the military.
The NLD had already announced that it would not register, denouncing the promised polls as a sham.
The party, and other critics, say the still-unscheduled polls will be neither free nor fair in a military-ruled country that has shut free media and arrested most of the leaders of Suu Kyi’s party.
The NLD won a landslide victory in the November 2020 election, but in February 2021, the army blocked all elected lawmakers from taking their seats in Parliament and seized power, detaining top members of Suu Kyi’s government and party.
The army takeover was met with widespread popular opposition. After peaceful demonstrations were put down with lethal force, many opponents of military rule took up arms, and large parts of the country are embroiled in conflict.
Suu Kyi, 77, is serving prison sentences totaling 33 years after being convicted in a series of politically tainted prosecutions brought by the military. Her supporters say the charges were contrived to prevent her from participating in politics.
Kyaw Htwe, a member of the NLD’s Central Working Committee, told The Associated Press on Tuesday night that the party’s existence does not depend on what the military decides, and it “will exist as long as the people support it.”
His statement was a reference to a message Suu Kyi sent to her supporters through her lawyers in May 2021 when she appeared in court in person for the first time after the military seized power, She said “Since the NLD was founded for the people, the NLD will exist as long as the people exist.”
“The party will continue to fulfill the responsibilities entrusted by the people,” Kyaw Htwe said in a text message.
The army said it staged its 2021 takeover because of massive poll fraud, though independent election observers did not find any major irregularities. Some critics of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who led the takeover and is now Myanmar’s top leader, believe he acted because the vote thwarted his own political ambitions.
The new polls had been expected by the end of July, according to the army’s own plans. But in February, the military announced a six-month extension of its state of emergency, delaying the possible legal date for holding an election. It said security could not be assured. The military does not control large swaths of the country, where it faces widespread armed resistance to its rule.
“Amid the state oppression following the 2021 coup, no election can be credible, especially when much of the population sees a vote as a cynical attempt to supplant the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 2020,” said a report issued Tuesday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank.
“The polls will almost certainly intensify the post-coup conflict, as the regime seeks to force them through and resistance groups seek to disrupt them.”
The military government enacted a new political party registration law in January that makes it difficult for opposition groups to mount a serious challenge to the army’s favored candidates. It sets conditions such as minimum levels of membership and candidates and offices that any party without the backing of the army and its cronies would find hard to meet, especially in the repressive political atmosphere.
The new law required existing political parties to re-apply for registration with the election commission by March 28.
Ninety parties ran in the 2020 election, of which just under half have been dissolved. The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper on Wednesday published the election commission’s list of 50 existing parties that had registered by the Tuesday deadline, and 40 that had not, meaning they would be dissolved as of Wednesday.
The surviving parties are unlikely to pose a meaningful electoral challenge to the junta: they won only a handful of seats in the 2020 election, and most will not mount national campaigns.
“Among these 63 parties, 12 parties will launch election campaigns across the nation and 51 parties only in one region or state,” the state-run paper reported.
The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which ran a distant second to the NLD in 2015 and 2020, registered again. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, and NLD ally that won the third largest number of seats in 2020, did not.
Thirteen new parties registered, and the announcement said the opportunity for new parties to register was still open.
The National League for Democracy was founded in 1988 in the wake of a failed uprising against military rule. It won a 1990 general election that was invalidated by the country’s military rulers. It was technically banned after it boycotted a 2010 election held under military auspices because it felt it was not free or fair, but was allowed to register when it agreed to run in 2011. It took power after a landslide victory in the 2015 general election.