In Burma’s business capital, Rangoon, a city rapidly acquiring a surprising veneer of affluence, the headquarters of the National League for Democracy is a ramshackle two-storey building with posters of Aung San Suu Kyi on the walls.
At a tea shop across the street plainclothes military intelligence agents were on Thursday monitoring the comings and goings of foreigners, snapping photos of people entering and leaving, images that will be used for articles in the state-run press.
Inside, the party’s elderly leadership tried to come to terms with their latest crisis.
The NLD, which is led by Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of a revered independence leader, won Burma’s last parliamentary elections, in 1990, by a landslide.
However, the party was prevented from taking power by the ruling military junta, which insisted that Burma first had to adopt a new constitution to govern its fractious, multi-ethnic society.
The country adopted the new constitution last year after the military, which has ruled since a 1962 coup, pressed ahead with a referendum even as most of the population was struggling with the aftermath of cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 85,000 and left 54,000 missing. But the NLD is still far from power and it looks likely Ms Suu Kyi will be sent back to prison after years under house arrest.
Following nearly two decades of stand-off, the military rulers are gearing up to hold elections under the new constitution, which guarantees them influence over all aspects of Burma’s public life.
International efforts to encourage talks between Ms Suu Kyi, the living symbol of the hopes of many Burmese for an end to military rule, and Senior General Than Shwe, the junta’s supreme commander, have come to nothing.
The dilemma for the NLD, which has held the moral high ground and enjoyed the backing of western policymakers, is whether to take part in a process that will fall short of creating the democracy they dreamed of.
The party has been torn between principles and pragmatism. “We are on the ‘maybe’ position,” a senior party leader said. He declined to comment on the charges laid against Ms Suu Kyi on Thursday.
The NLD declared its willingness after a recent conclave to participate in the election if Ms Suu Kyi were freed, the constitution was amended and the vote was free and fair
Analysts said any deterioration in Ms Suu Kyi’s conditions of detention could harden the party’s position on participating in the polls while undermining the vote’s credibility.
“If she is locked up for anything more than a year, I think it would make it almost impossible for the NLD to make the compromises that would be necessary for them to take part in the elections,” said one Bangkok-based analyst.
After a recent conclave of about 150 of its members, the NLD declared its willingness to participate in the election if Ms Suu Kyi were freed, the constitution was amended and the vote was free and fair.
Although still seen as representing the aspirations of Burma’s people, the NLD has struggled to remain relevant without its charismatic leader. The younger generation, keen to reinvigorate the organisation, has been kept in check by the party’s cautious leaders, some frail and bedridden.
A Bangkok-based Burma analyst said: “The people heading the NLD are in their late 80s and they are certainly not the future of the country.”
Many in Rangoon resent the party leaders’ staunch backing for sanctions, which have contributed to the country’s economic woes.
But the party remains inexorably linked with Ms Suu Kyi, who continues to inspire admiration and loyalty.
“She is the single iconic democratic figure in Burma and that is why the party remains important,” the Burma analyst said.