In Burma, a House Divided Against Itself

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 13 August 2015

Despite what some might have you believe, Burma’s upcoming election is not really a battle between the country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and other pro-democracy parties or independent candidates who support this cause. Instead it remains a fight between democracy proponents and a general-turned-politician contingent and other pro-military factions.

Given this reality, many believe that unity among pro-democracy forces is necessary to win that battle, and when we envision unity, this is what we’re talking about: robust collaboration between the NLD and like-minded political parties of ethnic and other varieties, as well as nonpartisan groups and independents. This in the face of a rival, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), that remains a powerful, effectively “state-owned” party.

But a recent move by the NLD, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, appears to fly in the face of that common perception, leaving some Burmese voters discontent and Burma watchers confused as well.

In early August, the NLD rejected most of the candidates submitted by the country’s popular “88 Generation” group, officially known these days as the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, to contest the upcoming election as members of the party. The 88 Generation had submitted 17 candidates for consideration but the NLD chose only one, excluding, among others, Ko Ko Gyi, one of the country’s most prominent activists and a key leader spearheading Burma’s democracy movement since a 1988 nationwide uprising against the then military regime.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Beyond Ko Ko Gyi’s glaring absence from the party list, the NLD’s central committee also decided not to select another well-known and outspoken candidate, Nyo Nyo Thin, a sitting parliamentarian in the Rangoon regional parliament. Over the last four years she has made a name for herself as a voice of the people, challenging authority and fighting for constituents in a young quasi-democracy where too often that is the exception to the rule.

Members of the NLD—with the apparent exception of a few individuals at the top of the party hierarchy—and the broader public had hoped to see Suu Kyi’s political vehicle and the 88 Generation enter the election as a united front, knowing full well that they will face a formidable opponent. No doubt the senior USDP leadership has taken great delight in observing the unraveling of this vision.

As an NLD spokesman has asserted, the party is fully within its rights to choose or reject parliamentary hopefuls from outside the party establishment. Based on its candidate list, it would appear that party loyalty and long-term membership in many cases are paramount to a proven track record, or even popular support.

But this decision has inevitably been followed by criticism, even within the party ranks, with the spurning of Ko Ko Gyi and Nyo Nyo Thin serving only as two of the most prominent examples of a party increasingly viewed as out of step with the wishes of its would-be constituents.

Why not embrace these trailblazers? Seats couldn’t be spared, on a candidate list that at the moment leaves some 80 races uncontested?

What has been missed here is an opportunity, in what could have been a win-win outcome. For Ko Ko Gyi, Nyo Nyo Thin and other aspirants, a chance to run for office with the full weight of a party brand that is second to none in Burma. For that party, a chance to show its willingness to embrace qualified candidates from outside the party to achieve shared goals, and sending the message that the party and other pro-democracy forces were united in their aim of vanquishing the USDP at the polls in November.

The fear is that this spirit of unity is fading, or perhaps is already lost.

The 88 Generation is not a political party but has countless supporters across the country, owing to its leading role in Burma’s pro-democracy movement since 1988. Despite its failure to register as a political party for the upcoming election, it should be viewed as one of the most influential political entities in the days ahead.

The reason for this is because its members were among the brave souls who kicked off the 1988 uprising as student activists, abandoning their classrooms to face the rifle barrels of the former regime’s troops on the streets of Rangoon and elsewhere. Some of them died on those streets, and many who survived languished behind bars in the aftermath. Ko Ko Gyi was among the latter group.

The inclusion of more 88 Generation candidates could only have bolstered the party’s support base. Instead, voters in some constituencies will be asked to determine who best represents the spirit of 1988—a candidate with the NLD’s official blessing or an alternative whose pro-democracy credentials are no less bona fide.

In Rangoon’s Bahan Township at least, Nyo Nyo Thin has said she will contest independently after being rejected by the NLD, putting this difficult choice to voters. Her NLD opponent will be Tun Myint. Have you heard of him?

Can he possibly point to a track record as distinguished as that of Nyo Nyo Thin? We are sure to find out, when the election campaign season officially begins next month.

Suu Kyi has told her supporters that all this focus on individuals is misplaced, and that voters should simply “vote NLD,” regardless of a given candidate’s qualifications, likeability, or any other qualities that an electorate would typically consider at the ballot box.

It appears that the chairwoman is confident that the cult of personality she has built up over the years will prove enough to see the party through to victory in November, and that calculus might well bear fruit.

But even if the party’s dream of securing a “landslide” victory comes to fruition, the question must be asked: Is this a triumph of democracy? A Parliament full of representatives who are disliked or little-known to their constituents, the people they claim to serve?

There is still time to right the wrongs. Reversing course on Ko Ko Gyi’s abortive candidacy alone could go some way toward healing the rift, he being one of the 88 Generation’s most prominent members and a face synonymous with the country’s democratic struggle.

And speaking of that struggle, the results of the upcoming election will not be a final verdict on the country’s political future. It’s just another step in the long and arduous journey toward government by and for the people. Men, women and students from all walks of life have taken part in this decades-long struggle, many of them joining the cause well before the NLD was born.

With less than 13 weeks until election day, the NLD has given the rival USDP a valuable gift; a splintering among the ranks of the country’s pro-democracy forces is precisely what the ruling party wants.