Politics in Myanmar
A younger generation emerges from Aung San Suu Kyi’s shadow and tries to turn her party into a government-in-waiting
SQUATTING on the bare floor of a sparsely furnished flat in central Yangon, a handful of 20-somethings tap furiously on battered old laptops, occasionally glancing at pieces of paper scattered around them. They could easily pass for a group of teenagers trawling Facebook. In fact, this is the research unit of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar’s main opposition party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. They are racing to meet a deadline to produce a weekly media-monitoring report, providing links to all the main references to the NLD and Myanmar in the international press. It is sent to NLD MPs and party leaders.
If it all looks fairly amateurish, that is because it is. They have no office, so the unit has to meet at the flat of Nay Chi Win, the founder and granddaddy of the group at the age of 32. The only obvious office accessory is a whiteboard, and his main worry is whether he can afford the rent. Nonetheless, the founding of the research unit earlier this year is one of several signs that the NLD is starting to grasp the urgent need for its own transformation.
Founded in 1988 by Miss Suu Kyi and others to oppose Myanmar’s brutal military rulers, the NLD has spent most of its life barely able to function. Its leaders were imprisoned and tortured, many members were driven into exile and the party was declared illegal. Since 2011, however, in the wake of President Thein Sein’s democratic reforms, the NLD has been on the brink of power. It won 43 of the 44 seats it contested in by-elections in 2012. If that were replicated nationally at the 2015 general election, the NLD would sweep the next parliament and Miss Suu Kyi could become president.
It has been a joyful, if at times bewildering, reversal in the NLD’s fortunes. Yet many, even within the party, argue that it has been slow to catch up with the changes. Some harsh criticisms emerged at the party’s first national congress in March: that the NLD is dominated by the old guard of leaders in their 70s or 80s; that Miss Suu Kyi is aloof and inaccessible; and that members have almost no voice in policy-making. Indeed, some complain that there is little policy-making apparatus at all, making the party dangerously underprepared for government in just two years’ time. Alert to these criticisms, younger NLD members have realised that it is up to them to professionalise the party.
The research unit is a good example. It was set up on Mr Nay Chi Win’s own initiative, as part of an effort to “decentralise” and “institutionalise”, as he puts it, a party that had become over-reliant on the personal leadership of Miss Suu Kyi. Apart from producing the media monitoring report, the unit also has three people researching subjects such as climate change and the rule of law.
It is also involved in a training programme for NLD members in local branches around the country. The cadres who come to Yangon get courses in the practice of running a modern political party, including basic office management and public relations. Taking a leaf out of the book of New Labour in Britain, they even have a course in personal grooming, given by Tin Moe Lwin, a famous model. As Mr Nay Chi Win argues, “this is a bottom-up process, the membership coming up with ideas.”
The leadership, too, has been involved in training. All NLD MPs can now take computer and internet courses in Naypyidaw, the capital. MPs have also been sent to America to study English and learn about democracy. Miss Suu Kyi herself has helped to set up an NLD youth congress; it hopes to meet for the first time in December or early next year.
Critics still point to the continuing isolation of Miss Suu Kyi (who is stuck in Naypyidaw much of the time) from the rest of the party and her unwillingness to delegate urgently needed policy thinking to others. For months the NLD leadership has been focusing on getting parliament to change clauses in the constitution that would make Miss Suu Kyi eligible to become president in 2015. It is a crucial task but has distracted leaders from formulating viable economic policies.
Such arguments plainly irritate Miss Suu Kyi’s overworked advisers. They argue that people have to be realistic about what can be achieved in a short time and on a slender budget. And just as some attack Miss Suu Kyi for being aloof, she is equally frustrated by the fact that people are so in awe of her that they will not dare argue or debate with her. Fame allows her to command a world audience, but it can also isolate her from her own people. The Economist