Myanmar’s NLD Marks 33rd Anniversary Facing Abolition Threat

By The Irrawaddy 27 September 2021

The National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar’s most popular political party, turns 33 years old on Monday. But a question mark hangs over its future following the military’s Feb. 1 coup.

NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, other senior party officials, members and supporters have been detained and prosecuted by the military regime, and many more party members have fled arrest. The regime annulled the results of the 2020 general election in which the NLD secured a resounding victory. It has also signaled its intention to disband the party. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in May that her party was established for the people, so it would survive as long as the people do. At the same time, China, which has some influence over Myanmar’s military, still recognizes and engages with the NLD.

Born out of the popular pro-democracy movement in 1988, and established on Sept. 27 of that year, the NLD began to be persecuted by the military regime of that time, which called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council, soon after its birth. The party’s activities were restricted and party leaders including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin Oo and Hantharwaddy U Win Tin were put behind bars less than one year after the founding of the party.

The NLD won a landslide victory in the 1990 general election, but the regime refused to hand over power. NLD lawmakers who held a secret meeting in Mandalay’s Amarapura Township at the time to establish a parallel government were arrested and handed long prison sentences. Among them was Dr. Zaw Myint Maung. The NLD vice chair would later become Mandalay Region chief minister, only to be ousted by the coup and detained by the current junta.

The regime coerced the party leaders into dismissing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, threatening them that the party would be abolished otherwise. Then NLD chairman U Aung Shwe was forced to sack Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other party leaders including U Tin Oo and U Kyi Maung. U Aung Shwe handed control of the party back to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after she was released from house arrest.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (far right, front row) is seen together with members of the first NLD Central Executive Committee after her release in 1995.

She spent a total of 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and 2010, interspersed with brief periods of freedom. Many an NLD member experienced long-term imprisonment, and their families were subjected to years of persecution. When the regime held a general election in 2010 under the 2008 Constitution it had itself drawn up, the NLD boycotted the poll at the instruction of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was again placed under house arrest.

Only after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi entered Myanmar’s bicameral Parliament through the 2012 by-election was the NLD able to operate freely. Under her leadership, the party won the 2015 general election and formed a government, 25 years after first winning an electoral mandate to do so.

It was the first civilian government in over five decades, since the late military dictator General Ne Win’s coup in 1962. Still, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from taking the country’s top job under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, and thus created the State Counselor position to allow her to steer her NLD government.

Her party repeated its electoral victory in 2020, but history repeated itself when military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seized power in a coup on Feb. 1 of this year. So, despite its triple electoral victories, the NLD was only able to form a government once.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy, attends the party’s flag-hoisting ceremony at the NLD’s Naypyitaw headquarters on Sept. 1, 2020. / The Irrawaddy

Almost the entire NLD cabinet including President U Win Myint were arrested by the military, but elected lawmakers of the NLD who managed to escape arrest formed the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) on April 16. The NUG declared a defensive war against the military regime earlier this month.

Initially, reports emerged that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has always observed the principle of  non-violence, did not endorse armed resistance against the military regime. She, however, has denied those reports, reportedly telling her lawyers that “she would never say words which will dismay the public [or go] against their will.”

The NLD chairwoman, who was greeted with tumultuous applause on the occasion of the 32nd anniversary of the founding of the NLD in Naypyitaw last year, is now a junta prisoner held in an unknown location.

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