It has become popular to criticize Aung San Suu Kyi for the weaknesses of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The following arguments are used: “Uncles” have not been replaced by the younger and more dynamic leaders. The party lacks policy expertise. It lacks internal democracy. It is a one-woman show.
But is the NLD really as weak as it is claimed by some diplomats, pundits, “experts” and political opponents?
There are several strong reasons to claim the opposite. First of all, the NLD is the only genuinely mass party in Burma. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has a lot of members, but the overwhelming majority of them joined the USDP for opportunistic reasons or because of fear, or a combination of both. The USDP is massive only because it is the ruling party offering privileges, patronage, advantages and a layer of security. With the prospect of electoral defeat the USDP will be massively deserted, as has happened in former state-parties during many other countries’ democratic breakthroughs. The NLD is genuinely popular and supported by a significant segment of population. The USDP is genuinely unpopular. All other parties are thin and weak. That is the underlying bottom line which many “Burma/Myanmar experts” have a tendency to overlook.
Second, it is important not to forget the timeframe. Elections took place on Nov. 7, 2010, and have been rightfully described as fraudulent by the UN, the United States, the European Union and many others. A week later, on Nov. 13, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest to divert the negative international media coverage of the elections.
Since her release from the house arrest in November 2010 until August 2011 (9 months) Aung San Suu Kyi was repeatedly reminded by the authorities that she is set free, but that she was not allowed to engage politically, that she was allowed to be only “a private person.” In this initial phase Aung San Suu Kyi was, with reason, behaving in very cautious way. She was still largely isolated, blocked from action and uncertain about the real intentions of the government. Big numbers of the NLD and other activists, senior and mid-level leaders were still in jail. The NLD as well as many other parties and pro-democracy civil groupings were still banned. Burma’s notorious oppressive laws were still unchanged.
Only in August 2011 things started to change. Aung San Suu Kyi is for the first time allowed to leave Rangoon on a political visit and she was invited to have a dinner with President Thein Sein and his wife. A few more meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and government interlocutors took place. Thein Sein’ s government was requiring from Aung San Suu Kyi to help them improve the relations with the United States and to have Western sanctions lifted. Suu Kyi has accepted to negotiate.
In that particular moment Aung San Suu Kyi’ s was internationally and domestically popular, but in terms of real political power, she was extremely weak. One of the few real power assets she possessed was unwillingness of the United States to remove the sanctions unless Suu Kyi agrees or at least does not actively oppose. She basically decided to exchange her trump card to buy for herself, her party, and for other democratic forces, a way out of the corner into which they had been pushed. She was ready to not actively oppose the lifting of sanctions, and in return she required the release of political prisoners (including activists of her own party as well as many others); the right to re-register and re-activate the NLD and the right to become politically active herself.
Suu Kyi has got what she asked for. The Party Registration Law has been amended and the NLD was allowed to re-register as a political party in December 2011. The government announced its intention to hold by-elections in April 2012 ,and the revived NLD announced its intention to contend them. A significant number of political prisoners were released in three waves, in October 2011, in January 2012 and in middle of 2012. Parallel to that the banned list was removed and that enabled the return of many exiles. In April 2012, the NLD took part in elections for the first time since 1990 and overwhelmingly won 43 out of 45 seats. Aung San Suu Kyi got herself, her party and other democratic forces out of the corner. The government also got what they wanted. The United States eased their sanctions and the EU has gone even further by suspending almost all sanctions and by opening its representative office in Rangoon.
Those who are quick to criticize the NLD for its weaknesses ignore this timeline. They ignore the fact that just two years ago the NLD has been banned, a large number of its experienced and respected activists were in jail, and the country’s laws allowed the authorities to put in prison anybody who did anything publicly under the banner of the NLD. Starting from such a disadvantageous position, the NLD has in the meantime achieved quite a lot. It has swept to victory in by-elections. It has quickly revived as the mass membership party with branches all around the country. The NLD foothold in ethnic territories might not be too strong—but even there it has some foothold and it remains to be tested the popularity of the NLD is compared to the other parties. We still do not have data from any reliable opinion surveys.
The revived NLD has marginalized small and split-away parties which have been partly manufactured and promoted by both “GONGOs” (government organized nongovernmental organizations) and some foreign political foundations as the alleged “third force.” The main intended role of the “third force” has been to help legitimize fraudulent elections and to help marginalize NLD. The opposite has happened; the NLD has reinstated itself as the main opposition party.
It has developed a media and information department, which is publishing a daily newspaper that has the biggest circulation from all print media in Burma. It held internal, bottom-up elections for the representatives participating in the first party congress.
The party has successfully avoided internal rifts over leadership and seniority. There has been a strong external pressure by the self-proclaimed experts and opinion makers to replace the senior leadership with a younger one. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD made the right move. They have kept respected elders in the Executive Committee and have expanded it to take on board also new and younger leaders. The stage was successfully set up for gradual change of the leadership which is much more appropriate for Burmese socio-cultural habits.
The NLD has a group of members of Parliament, some of them pretty active, and they are learning the lessons of parliamentarianism. In addition to that, and no less important, in Parliament, the NLD members and more so Aung San Suu Kyi herself, are in a position to engage current and former military officers and to reduce mistrust, fear and zero-sum-game-type animosities.
In the extraordinary personality of Aung San Suu Kyi the NLD has strong, charismatic leader who is highly popular and capable of setting the agenda and of firmly controlling any internal factional disputes. It has a leader who enjoys fully loyal support from the NLD’s army of the grassroots activists.
And all that was achieved in just two years, in a legal and political environment which was not favorable and with strong budget limitations. Is that signs of weakness? I would not say so.
The NLD is also often criticized for a lack of political program. Yes, that is truth. It is still not visible what the NLD political program is on the economy, energy, health, social affairs etc. But we should put that in context as well. Who else in Burma has a policy program? Who else has capacity? Recently, the top ranks of the government and their technocrat advisory teams are showing the signs of some policy expertise. Nobody else in the country has the needed capacity and that is the consequence of decades of military dictatorship.
Instead of dismissing the NLD for the lack of elaborate policy planning, it is a more sound assumption that the NLD has time to develop policy teams and policy plans. There are two more years until the elections. In post-authoritarian situations, long suppressed democratic opposition groups often win the first free elections by having simple and effective messages and by the popularity of their leaders and candidates. Once in power, capacity will quickly develop with a responsibility. Advisers, educated exiles and donor-funded technical assistance will flock even more into the Aung San Suu Kyi led government than has happened with Thien Sein‘s cabinet. It is very probable that many mistakes will be made—some for the reasons of the lack of capacity and knowledge; some because of wrong decisions, and some because of some specific interest—but that will be far from a total lack of capacity.
It is genuinely unfair and hypocritical that many diplomats and pundits now criticize the NLD for the lack of expertise and capability and declare it incapable of taking over responsibility for the governance. The long proven lack of capability on the side of government is on the other side labeled as lack of capacity which requires patience and generous technical and financial assistance. A specific handicap on the side of opposition is used to argue why the NLD and opposition are not ready to take over the government, and the same handicap on the government side is regarded as the call for liverish support and assistance.
Another often repeated complaint and criticism of the NLD is that it has put its candidates in by-elections against ethnic party candidates. This is often used to argue that ethnic do not and cannot have trust in the NLD as “yet another Burman only party.” But we should be careful with the credibility of this argument. First of all, it is mostly used by the leaders of the small ethnic parties who are simply afraid of NLD competition. They are (over)critical of the NLD because they are aware that in 2015 elections the USDP cannot take votes in “their” ethnic territories, but the NLD maybe can.
Ethnic leaders are a highly disparate group of people and it remains to be seen who will really prove to have the support of ethnic voters. There are now many self-declared leaders with very shallow or totally untested support bases. There is a lot competition between different ethnic leaders. It is still too early to make any final judgment. An NLD-ethnic parties alliance could still emerge. It is almost certain that prior to the 2015 elections we will also have the USDP or some Thein Sein-led “reform” party surrounded in a pre- or post-election coalition by a group of ethnic and small “democratic” parties.
Second, and more important, is the big and complex question of what is better for the future democratic prospects of Burma. Ethnic parties, particularly the smaller ones, would like to see the NLD withdrawing in the role of the Burman-only party, in order to clear the space for them to compete (and win) in “their” ethnic territories. Such withdrawal would surely be good for the ethnic parties because it would eliminate one serious competitor and make victory easier. But would that be good for the future democratic and development prospects of the country? Democracy needs free and fair multiparty competition, it needs real alternatives for voters to choose. Neither democracy nor development can thrive under cartel deals that divide the spheres of political and territorial influence.
Yet another argument often used to criticize Aung San Suu Kyi is the one which says that she has stopped acting as the opposition leader and has become the junior partner and tacit endorser of the post-junta government.
Again, that criticism lacks an in-depth understanding of the Burmese political dynamic. What can take Burma out from the poor state in which it found itself after decades of the military rule and mismanagement is the negotiated transition pact similar to one that was struck by the Nelson Mandela and Frederick de Klerk in South Africa. Aung San Suu Kyi has so far rightfully and politically bravely accepted the hard historic mission of helping move transition ahead by taking a conciliatory stand. She has accepted to undergo the serious political risk of alienating and disappointing her core support base in order to give a chance to Thein Sein’s government, the military and the USDP-dominated Parliament to move the country toward democracy. Smooth, non-violent transition needs a give-and-take conciliatory and compromise-seeking approach which will not produce losers and winners, but will create a situation in which all sides will need to make some tough sacrifices of their important and long-standing demands, in order to reach a solution that is acceptable for all key players. A negotiated transition is possible only if all sides are ready to give up something in order to gain something else and Aung San Suu Kyi has shown significant political maturity as well as self-confidence by credibly playing her conciliatory role in spite of criticism from many sides. She has been ready to endanger her popularity in order to give a chance to national reconciliation. She stubbornly stuck to her part of the deal even in the moments when President Thein Sein was either unwilling or unable to fulfill his part of the deal.
Now, again, the ball is in the court of the government and the military. They need to prove through concrete reforms and not through words and photo-op ceremonies without underlying substance their willingness to undertake fundamental changes and not just time-buying half-reforms.
In the article A Recipe for Freedom (which was translated into Burmese and posted on the Irrawaddy site) De Klerk gave good advice for all countries and leaders who want to take their countries away from dictatorship, repression, violence, injustice and discrimination. “The departure point is to convince leaders that fundamental change is necessary”, he said and continued: “We had to change fundamentally, to make a 180-degree turn. We could not improve apartheid. We could not make it more acceptable. We had to abandon the concept of separateness and we had to embrace a new vision of togetherness, of one united South Africa, with equal rights for all and an end to discrimination.“ Thein Sein still needs to prove that his project is a project of the genuine and fundamental change, and is not just an effort to improve old military rule and to make old military and Burman dominance more acceptable.
Igor Blazevic is a researcher at the Czech-based Centre for Democracy and Culture and a teacher at the Burma Educational Initiatives