Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Icon Under Fire: Burma's Suu Kyi Eyes Presidency Amid Criticism

Burma's NLD has long basked in the reflected glory of its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is eyeing the Burmese presidency in 2015. But the party is holding its first-ever conference this week amid growing internal tension and mounting criticism of the pro-democracy icon

The unassuming, two-storey building on Shwegondaing Road in Yangon, which houses the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters, is a hive of activity. Busloads of tourists pass by, telephones ring off the hook, copy machines hum around the clock, and there's always a meeting taking place. It's never exactly quiet here, but at the moment it's busier than ever. The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, is celebrating its first party conference since its founding in 1988

By Saturday, the 900 delegates attending the event will have redefined the party's leadership. Now in their 70s and 80s, some of the most senior members of the party's upper ranks will be let go, while new leaders and a Central Committee made up of 120 members will be appointed. The NLD will also be deciding on its strategy. 

But for Suu Kyi's party, the biggest opposition party in Burma, even more hinges on the conference. It is planning to prepare the ground for parliamentary elections scheduled for 2015, when it hopes its leader will secure the country's presidency. 

It has good reason to be optimistic. Suu Kyi remains hugely popular, and the NLD won 43 of 45 seats in by-elections held in April 2012. Rising from the ashes of the proverbial phoenix, the party is back on Burma's political stage. 

Past Triumphs and New Trials
Win Tin, a veteran of the pro-freedom and democracy opposition party who was imprisoned by the military junta for 19 years, recalls the NLD's difficult early days. After the uprising spearheaded by monks and students in 1988, he says, the pro-democracy opposition lacked an experienced political leader. "Aung San Suu Kyi and Un Tin Oo and so on were new," he adds, "but we joined together and formed a party and worked out a political agenda and worked for the people and won the 1990 elections."

That 1990 landslide victory was both the biggest triumph and bitterest disappointment in the party's history. The NLD came out of nowhere to win 392 of 492 seats in the People's Assembly, but the result was nullified by the military regime, which had seized power in 1988. Members of the party were outlawed and persecuted. 

The election marked the start of an unprecedented era of suffering for the NLD, with many members arrested and tortured. Over the next 21 years, Aung San Suu Kyi -- who became an icon of freedom for the oppressed Burmese people -- was repeatedly sent to jail or put under her house arrest by the generals.

Those days are long over. Reformist President Thein Sein is reinventing the country. And even though there has been recent criticism of the government's treatment of the Rohingya Muslims and the slow progress of peace talks with other ethnic minorities, today's Burma is enjoying a degree of freedom within its borders, a reputation abroad and a new economic dawn that would have seemed unimaginable just two years ago. 

Suu Kyi and her followers have used the time to rebuild their party. New NLD offices were opened across the country, from Yangon to Mandalay. But wide-scale efforts to boost membership have met with little success. Ahead of the 2012 by-elections, the NLD announced it was aiming to recruit one million new members. But according to the Mizzima news service, only 50,000 of the application forms distributed by the party were returned. Reliable figures on the NLD's current membership are not available. 

Cracks are also beginning to show within the party. In December 2012, the Myanmar Times reported that 500 frustrated NLD members in Pathein, Burma's fourth-largest city, had abandoned the party, accusing its leaders of being undemocratic and authoritarian. There is a growing exodus from the party in other regions, too. The complaints are always the same, ranging from autocratic leadership to a lack of transparency. 

Moreover, the party conference was originally scheduled for February but had to be postponed because of disputes over the selection of delegates. 

"The party's theme is fairness and peace, but there is no fairness in the party," says Ko Ko Naing, a spokesperson for the dissenters. 

Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a political think tank aligned with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party, reached a similar conclusion in a 2012 analysis of the NLD. "(The party) does not yet have clear internal procedures for determining political posts or nominating candidates. The party leader has the last word," it found. For now, it continued, the NLD "is relying mainly on the myth of Aung San Suu Kyi."

Criticism and Rebuttals
Dissatisfaction with Suu Kyi's political course is also growing. At an NLD fundraiser in December, she accepted donations from shady business tycoons with ties to the former military regime. According to media reports, the donations totaled over $240,000. 

"Those who are considered cronies have supported the social activities of the NLD and others. What is wrong with that?" asked Suu Kyi in response to criticism.

NLD veterans are also unhappy at seeing Suu Kyi reach out to military leaders. She has repeatedly expressed her affection for the military, saying that she is after all the daughter of General Aung San, the leader of Burma's struggle for independence, who is still revered by the Burmese people. 

Significantly, Suu Kyi needs the army to be on her side if she is to succeed in pushing for the constitutional change that will allow her to run for president. As a mother of two children with British passports, she is currently not allowed to run for the country's highest office. 

Her detractors have also criticized her silence regarding the recent violence against Rohingya Muslims as well the ongoing conflict between the state and the Kachin ethnic minority in northern Burma. 

For the time being, however, Suu Kyi remains a media darling. Ko Ahr Mahn, manager of the weekly magazine 7DayNews, frankly admits that "maybe some (media) publish only positive news about Suu Kyi." When Min Zin, who took part as a student in the 1988 protests, openly criticized her silence on the Rohingyas, her friendship with the army and the spiraling tensions within the NLD and between the party and local journalists, he was attacked online. "How dare you attack Suu Kyi?" was the general gist.

She seems to have gotten the message. In the past, she said ahead of the party conference, the members of the Central Committee were not always democratically elected due to the difficult political climate. But this would not happen in Yangon this week, she said, when everyone would rise to the challenge of a free and democratic vote. 

However, she has still kept silent on the issue of the Rohingya Muslims and continues to nurture good relations with the generals. She knows all too well that she needs their help to become president.

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