Formed in 1988 following the nationwide pro-democracy uprising, the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS) spent over two decades in political exile after being outlawed by Burma’s military regime in 1991. It was officially re-registered as a political party with the Union Election Commission in October 2014 but some leading members remain barred from contesting the 2015 elections under a constitutional clause. The party’s chair Aung Moe Zaw spoke to The Irrawaddy on his efforts to re-register the party, its activities within the last five months and his views on the current political landscape.
What were the main challenges you faced after returning from exile after 23 years?
The challenges were both political and financial. In terms of political challenges, I have not seen unity among the democratic forces. Before we returned, we hoped to join hands together. In exile, it was clear our stance was either black or white. But here it is grey. We are not able to implement the [political] platform we intended. We still think the democratic movement must continue as our country isn’t a full democracy and we are not even yet on a genuine democratic transition. We think there should be a centre, where all the political parties and civil society groups can coalesce. We re-registered our party as we want to be a good pressure mechanism in the reform period. But we have our allies, such as the SNLD [the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy] and the United Nationalities Alliance [UNA], which we collaborate with.
Does the DPNS still have the political space to operate inside the country, alongside and against other parties?
Yes, we definitely have [the space]. The question is how much we can do. In terms of the political space, we have a continuous alliance with the UNA, which has a policy to collaborate with us on matters of national reconciliation and building federalism. In the upcoming election, at least we have a space where we can raise our voice. As I said, we have faced political difficulties, as well as financial and legal difficulties and so forth. We returned home after the incumbent government opened the door and invited us [and others in exile] to come back. But they [the government] control everything; the rules and regulations and financially. We have to work in a tight situation. We have been back in the country for over two years, but we only became an official political party five months ago.
Have you seen any difference in terms of public interest in your party, which was quite well-known in the 1990s?
Honestly, many people are not aware of our party. Our supporters are those in their forties who have been in the political movement. Many young people, especially, rarely know of us, so we have to struggle [to regain popularity].
How long do you think it will take for the party to regain its standing?
We must try at least for the next 10 years. We can do it as now there is the political need. At the moment, we are still pushing for democracy. When the country’s transition is stable, we would only need four or five good political parties for our country. So we have a chance to fill that space.
In addition to the lack of unity among the democratic forces, as you said, what are the other obstacles for political parties?
We reregistered the party under two conditions. First, we held discussions with the Myanmar Peace Center on six occasions before we returned to the country. We were told they [the government] would acknowledge our party and to reregister under the current laws. We accepted that and we made our decision to return. Then we tried registering, since two years ago. The first challenge we faced was that we were told to remove seven of our executive members from the party’s leadership [who were on a government blacklist at the time]. It was sorted out after several months. We also faced objections from our former members when we registered the party. But they now have their own party. I don’t know yet whether our two parties could merge in the future.
Will DPNS be able to contest the upcoming election if Article 120 of the Constitution—that requires prospective parliamentary candidates to have resided in the country for at least 10 consecutive years prior to the election—is not amended?
Many of our party members are eligible to enter the election, but few of our [formerly exiled] leading members. We were in exile for political reasons and we returned as the reform has started. That clause of the Constitution is the reason a few others and I will not be able to contest. We have raised the issue of how we can overcome obstacles [such as this]. We have talked to the Union Election Commission, which said it was beyond their authority, but promised to help petition the parliament for amendment of this clause. At the moment, it is not yet certain.
How many candidates would you have if the Constitution was amended?
In general, we think we would have 220 election candidates, but within this short period of time [before the election] we would not be able to field that many.
Do you think it’s a level playing field?
There is no level playing field, not only in the political context, but in any field. We knew it, but we work [within it]. Therefore, I think we among the democratic forces should have unity. There is no equality for the political parties, either the opposition or the ethnic parties, in competing with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in terms of budget. As they are in power, they initiate regional development [projects] with the national budget. If you travel across Burma, you will see villages named as a “USDP village.” We are aware of the challenges, but as we reformed the party, at least we can be in touch with the public so that we can mobilize to fight injustice.
Under these conditions, how much trust do you have in the upcoming election?
It is hard to say. Until now, big parties like the NLD cannot yet say whether they will contest the 2015 election. Though everyone is preparing to be ready. If this year’s election does not have fraud, the democratic forces will win. The present situation is more complex than in the 1990 period. Now we have many groups, including the ethnic political parties, with which we could join hands. If the election is free and fair, there is no way for the USDP to win.
Many observers are now questioning the reform process in Burma. Do you share these concerns?
If changes in Burma are in accordance with the Constitution, we cannot say we are in a democracy. Amendment of the Constitution must be a part of [broader] changes. If not, questions will also remain over whether peace is genuine. Those leaders in the reform process must have the mind to go beyond the current Constitution. In order for the political reforms to move forward, it also very much depends on political parties like us, as well as civil society groups. I would urge the current leaders to hold specific talks with leaders such as the NLD’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnics’ Khun Htun Oo of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. The talks must be related to the peace process, which is another half of the country’s reform. We need a national accord on how to move forward in building our country based on an all-inclusive agreement. If not, we could lose direction.