Aung San Suu Kyi & Her Party Face Challenges Despite Opportunities of Myanmar’s Elections

By Aung Din

Aung San Suu Kyi addressing supporters during 2012. Source: Wikimedia user Htoo Tay Zar, used under a creative commons license.

Many things look rosy for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), ahead of landmark elections in Myanmar in November. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is divided and infighting between President Thein Sein and parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann is distracting the USDP. Aung San Suu Kyi has managed to arouse the hackles of the public against the military through her recent effort to amend the constitution in parliament, which was blocked by the generals.

Meanwhile, Thein Sein has lost popularity and is a constant target of Myanmar’s nascent media. His effort to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement with ethnic armed groups has not yet been concluded after three years of negotiations. Aung San Suu Kyi’s closet rival and conditional friend, Shwe Mann, has lost the support of the military leadership. His rivalry with Thein Sein and the military came to a head on August 12 when security forces surrounded the USDP headquarters in Naypyidaw and party members loyal to the president voted to oust Shwe Mann as party chief (he remains parliamentary speaker). The cumulative losses of the USDP and the military should be Aung San Suu Kyi’s gains. Her time to rise to power may be only few months away, despite her constitutional inability to stand for the presidency.

Myanmar’s most famous celebrities, actors, musicians, writers, and comedians are all prepared to leverage their creative talents to help Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD campaign. The two nationwide celebrations of the 100th birthday of her father, the late national hero Aung San, and the 68th anniversary of Martyrs’ Day, when her father and his comrades were assassinated, effectively allowed the NLD to campaign well before the official election campaign period begins.

Despite all that, the NLD faces a tough road to the presidency. It is having trouble fielding qualified candidates and faces a severe challenge by an ultra-nationalist group, called Organization for Protection of Nationality and Religion, or MaBaTha in Burmese.

Expectations are high that the NLD will repeat its victory of 1990 and win the most seats in the upcoming elections. Such a victory could send Aung San Suu Kyi to the chairmanship of the lower house of parliament. Although she is not eligible to be president, she is expected to back one of her trusted aides for the position who could form the government if the NLD wins a majority. In this scenario, Aung San Suu Kyi could be even more powerful than the president, having powers to control the legislative body and guide the executive branch.

However, a two-stage competition will determine who will be the next president. After a successful nomination from either the lower house or the upper house of parliament, or the military, 332 votes are needed to be elected president in the final voting by lawmakers, or 67 percent of the total elected seats. If the NLD doesn’t win that number of seats, it would likely lose in the presidential race. If the NLD does not win at least 221 seats in the lower house and 113 seats in the upper house in the general elections, the NLD will also probably lose the chairmanship in the lower or upper house of parliament, or both.

The NLD was born out of the 1988 popular democracy uprising. The problem that the party has consistently faced since its founding has been a shortage of qualified leaders. Aung San Suu Kyi runs the NLD as if it were her private company. As the party’s strength and popular support are solely dependent on Aung San Suu Kyi, if she fails or cannot lead, the party will fail too.

In March 2013, the NLD held its first national conference in Yangon, 25 years after its inception. More than 900 delegates from all over the country came to Yangon, many with the hope that party leaders could be elected democratically. Delegates from each state and region were allowed to elect members to the central committee from among their own delegates. After a 120 member central committee was elected, Aung San Suu Kyi was chosen as the party chair unanimously and uncontested.

At this point, many hoped that members of the central executive committee, the highest level decision making body in the party’s charter, would be elected from the members of the central committee. But to their surprise, Aung San Suu Kyi held a private meeting with the current central executive committee and then announced the list of members of the new central executive committee she had just appointed. They included the current members and a few new names.

The party is now chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi with the help of the appointed central executive committee. There is no vice chair, no general secretary, and there are no elected leaders except Aung San Suu Kyi in the NLD’s decision making body. The NLD is structured much like a private company. Aung San Suu Kyi is CEO, central executive committee members are appointed executives who are loyal and responsible only to the CEO, and party members are minor shareholders who do not have voting rights.

The NLD is expected to try to contest almost all of the 1,171 seats in the election and therefore it has sought to find enough qualified candidates. It released its list of 1,133 candidates on August 1, but has been heavily criticized for leaving off well-known lawmakers and activists, including members of the 88 Generation (Peace and Open Society), and in many cases ignoring the nominations made by local party offices.

Candidates must also pass the Union Election Commission’s scrutiny, which will make its final decision between August 18 and 27. Unfortunately, the NLD lacks enough qualified candidates. Some candidates may not pass the election commission’s scrutiny and some may not get support from local NLD members, let alone win their respective election.

The MaBaTha was founded one year ago by a group of influential Buddhist monks, but the speed of the group’s rise to national prominence is remarkable. Today, its branches have been established throughout the country and its influence over the government and public is widespread. Ultra-nationalism and religious extremism bind its members together with a common belief that they are protecting Buddhism from the danger of other religions.

The MaBaTha believes that Buddhism will be weakened and undermined if the NLD wins in the election and holds power. Its members believe that keeping the USDP in power is the best chance to protect the Burmese nationality and Buddhist religion. They have mounted a campaign, calling for people to vote for USDP, not NLD, candidates.

In addition unity between the NLD and ethnic parties has been broken by the NLD’s decision to try to contest all seats even in ethnic states. By rejecting prominent members of civil society from the party’s candidate list and selecting party candidates by the order of the central executive committee against the will of local branches, unity within the party and with civil society has also been broken. Combining these fissures with the strong campaign against the NLD launched by the MaBaTha, a major NLD victory in the elections is not a sure thing.

Mr. Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Burma and currently lives in the United States. He is serves as a consultant for Moemaka Multimedia, based in San Francisco, and as an adviser to the Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), a nonprofit organization based in Yangon which promotes the right to information and education – an imperative to get every citizen engaged in Myanmar’s transition towards a future in which peace prevails and democracy prospers. See more information about OMI here.


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