Guest Column

Why the 88 Generation Students Party is Crucial

By Hans Hulst 21 March 2013

Earlier this week, the 88 Generation Students group finally announced that it will form a political party. It took a lengthy internal debate. Apparently, the group was split between two factions: one favoring a focus on civil-society work, spearheaded by Min Ko Naing, and another in favor of an active political role, with strategist Ko Ko Gyi as its most notable proponent.

The decision to enter the political arena is timely and will benefit democracy in Burma in three important ways.

Firstly, it will counterbalance the unhealthy monopoly of the National League for Democracy (NLD). It is quite clear that the NLD dominates the democratic movement. It will probably win the 2015 elections, if it’s allowed to do so. But at the same time, the NLD is dependent on Aung San Suu Kyi. If something were to happen to her, the party could quite conceivably explode into several splinters during the leadership struggle that would follow. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would have the political field all to itself again.

A credible and sizable democratic alternative—Min Ko Naing is still Burma’s second most prominent pro-democracy leader—would help to prevent such a scenario.

The second reason is that an NLD landslide victory in 2015 would be bad for the country and for the NLD itself. Lately, quite a few Burma-watchers have been worried about the NLD’s capacity to govern. More importantly: there’s a real danger that a landslide victory for the party could scare the army into a relapse. If the new 88 Generation Students party grabs enough votes away from the NLD, the army and the USDP might feel less overpowered. A coalition government would probably be the best next step to guarantee a stable transition in 2015 and beyond.

Thirdly, while the NLD might not be the most fertile breeding ground for young(er) talent, the 88 Generations Students Group certainly is. It consists of many younger generation leaders who personally initiated the uprising in 1988 (the NLD only came along later, after the mass movement to end military rule was already well underway), and who launched smaller protests in August 2007 that morphed into the monk-led Saffron Revolution the following month (after the 88 Generation leaders had been locked up). At that time, the NLD watched the spectacle from the sidelines, as it did all too often.

It might well be that Suu Kyi’s heritage will prove to be enough to land her a seat in government in 2015. But wouldn’t it be much better for younger generation leaders like Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Min Za Ya and Pyone Cho to take over the helm in the not too distant future? They acted time and again when others didn’t. And they certainly paid a hefty personal price for their democratic ideals.

Hans Hulst is a journalist and the author of two books on Burma, with a third, on the country’s current transition, in progress.