ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
New Myanmar a test for Suu Kyi's party
Publication Date : 08-03-2013
NLD needs to reinvent itself to meet changing aspirations of the people
Ma Thanegi, a one-time personal assistant and confidante of Aung San Suu Kyi, cites a common joke in Myanmar to explain its political culture: "Put two people in a room and they will form three cliques."
As Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) opens its first-ever national congress on the sprawling premises of the Royal Rose restaurant here today, party leader Suu Kyi will have her hands full fielding issues, assuaging egos - and trying to reinvent the party to address aspirations in a new and changing Myanmar.
The three-day meeting will also for the first time hold a vote for office-bearers who have thus far been appointed - with real power concentrated in the hands of the 67-year-old Nobel laureate. The exercise is seen as long overdue internal democratisation.
It is a crucial moment for the party as it prepares for the 2015 general election, which it is widely expected to win if the polls are fair and free.
Founded in 1988 on the crest of a democratic movement, the NLD won a general election in 1990 but was not allowed to take power. Successive military regimes kept many top leaders detained for lengthy periods, including and especially Suu Kyi, who from 1989 to 2010 spent 15 years in some form of detention.
The party's return to mainstream politics came after a careful rapprochement between Suu Kyi and the soft-spoken, persuasive and reformist President Thein Sein. The rehabilitated NLD then swept 43 out of the 44 seats it contested in a by-election last April that was seen as a watershed moment for Myanmar's transition to democracy.
Suu Kyi is still transitioning from an iconic symbol of democracy to a politician practising democracy in a fractious country.
Today's Myanmar, emerging from the shadows of civil wars, a disastrous socialism, dictatorships and poverty, presents a new challenge to a political party that has never run the country.
Fissures have emerged in the party, whose original leaders are elderly and whose old loyalists feel sidelined by a new emphasis on women and youth.
The party has already split once, with several members breaking away to form a new party, the National Democratic Force, over Suu Kyi's decision to boycott the military-run 2010 polls.
The party is highly dependent on its leader. "The NLD without Suu Kyi is meaningless," said party spokesman Nyan Win this week.
It has also been unable to put together a credible economic vision. A Yangon-based diplomat, asking not to be named, said "the NLD risks both a paucity of ideas and a loss of relevance" if it fails to reinvent itself at the congress.
The congress will lay out an organisational structure and a manifesto.
The party's struggles are not unique; the ruling military-allied Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has also seen its own internal power struggles.
Historian and author Thant Myint-U noted that the sort of political parties needed for a fully functioning democratic system do not yet exist in Myanmar.
"The NLD is still very dependent on Aung San Suu Kyi's personal leadership, and the USDP is hobbled both by its military past as well as the Constitution's strange ban on the President and ministers being active in party affairs," he said.
"The NLD congress could be critical in moving us towards a more issues-based party system."