RANGOON — Soe Tun has been a steadfast member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) for two decades, bearing witness to the persecution of the party’s members and the imprisonment of its senior leadership.
After years as the party secretary in the Naypyidaw* township of Lewe, Soe Tun applied to contest the local seat for the Union Parliament in this year’s general election, confident that his dedication and commitment to the country’s democracy movement would be acknowledged in the selection process.
Instead, the party’s central executive committee approved a candidate from outside Lewe, who had barely been a member of the NLD for a year.
“Why not name my name is on the list? Am I not qualified? I think the selection process is dishonest, and I’m really upset,” said the 53-year old.
When the candidate lists were announced on Saturday, the party came under fire for excluding prominent democracy activists and public figures, despite asking them to contest the November election under the NLD banner. Among those excluded were 88 Generation leader Ko Ko Gyi, outspoken independent lawmaker Nyo Nyo Thin and Rangoon University Rector Dr Aung Thu.
The NLD central committee’s process for choosing candidates has also triggered discontent within party ranks for allegedly disregarding its own selection criteria, with some members saying the move has provoked resignations from among the party’s two-million strong membership.
Starting from Monday, rejected candidates from across the country have flocked to the party’s central election campaign office, near Rangoon’s Revolutionary Park, to voice their objections. During a visit to the office, The Irrawaddy witnessed at least seven people waiting to meet with central committee members to lodge their complaints personally.
Sai Win Naing Oo, the NLD secretary from Naypyidaw’s* Pyinmana Township, was among them.
“If they chose someone who was better than me, I would be pleased,” said the seemingly disappointed 45-year old while waiting for a meeting with the CEC members.
A member of the party since he was 19, Sai Win Naing Oo was approved as Pyimana’s NLD candidate by the party’s township and divisional offices. He said that when the candidate lists were released after vetting by the central committee, someone who had not applied to contest the seat in the first place had been selected in his stead.
“Why did the committee exclude someone approved by the township and division?” he asked. “I hate the party’s centralized system. I wish Daw Aung San Suu Kyi knew the current situation—the gap between the central and grassroots level is getting wider.”
The opposition leader is aware of at least some of the complaints being directed against the committee. In an interview with her party’s journal, D Wave, reported by the Myanmar Times on Tuesday, Suu Kyi characterized the controversy as a “blessing in disguise” because it allowed the party to divine who was working for the party instead of their own self-interest.
Indeed, much of the criticism of the candidate selection process has focused around allegations that the NLD valued loyalty above other criteria, which is why the central committee excluded public figures from outside of the party fold.
Questions remain, however, as to why long-time party stalwarts with grassroots support in their home townships have been excluded from the candidate list, including instances where candidates from outside the community have been imposed on township party branches.
The party’s criteria for candidate selection was ostensibly based on six points, with prospective candidates expected to demonstrate a knowledge of the party platform, education, public support, the ability to defeat potential rivals in the ballot.
NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi said in June that the central committee had resolved to conduct thorough financial checks of candidates to increase transparency and limit the chance of corruption. If all the above criteria were met, then priority would be given to youth, women and people of an ethnic minority background.
More than 3,000 people applied for candidacy with the party, which eventually lodged candidates for 1,090 of Burma’s 1,171 seats. At present, a mere 15 percent of NLD candidates lodged with the Union Election Commission are female. Party members have told The Irrawaddy that background checks were cursory, if they occurred at all.
Staff from NLD’s election office confirmed to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that they had received numerous complaint letters from NLD members but refused to provide numbers, saying that they had no authority to release the information.
Win Myint, a member of the NLD’s central committee, confirmed to The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the party had received complaints but said that the exact number had not been tallied.
Asked whether there were legitimate grievances around the party’s candidate selection process, Win Myint said: “We don’t choose anyone who doesn’t meet the criteria. If you chose someone, you will be criticized by someone else who doesn’t like them. That’s human nature.”
“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi knows the situation, and she directs us to review complaints if they are accurate and have solid evidence. If not, we won’t consider them,” he added.
Win Myint’s comments failed to satisfy Aung Kyaing, another NLD member from Lewe, who said he wanted a proper explanation on how the central committee had arrived at the final list.
“There are many like us. We will form a network to push the committee for an explanation,” he said.”
“All I can say for now is that the party fighting for democracy still can’t operate democratically.”
*Correction, Aug. 7, 2015: This article originally stated that Lewe and Pyinmana townships were in Mandalay Division.