Cramming for That Next Big Test in Democracy

Cramming for That Next Big Test in Democracy

RANGOON, Burma — In a musty room on the first floor of the YMCA in downtown Rangoon, potential future leaders of Burma are learning about Facebook. A PowerPoint presentation offers a potted biography of Mark Zuckerberg and explains what it means to "like" something. 

Listening intently are around 60 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma’s leading opposition party, who are undergoing a crash course in politics and community mobilization. After half a century of military dictatorship and pervasive poverty, the teachers are starting from scratch: What is "civil society"? What is freedom of speech? What is an email address? 

"I’ve been a member of the NLD for 20 years but we’ve never had a chance to learn about real politics or have any training," said Naw Na Chatang, a 50-year-old farmer from the remote northern state of Kachin. Until recently, his life centered around growing lemons and rice on a hillside. Now he’s just been elected to the Central Committee of the NLD, a posting confirmed at the first-ever party congress in March. He hopes to run for office in the country’s next general election in 2015. 

It’s been just two years since President Thein Sein, an ex-general who was part of the military junta that ran Burma for the five decades before that, decided to embark on a cautious program of liberalization. That opening included legalization of the NLD, a movement that bore the brunt of the old dictatorship’s policies of oppression. Many leading NLD members served long terms in jail, where they were deprived of even the most basic information about the outside world — not that their compatriots in the country at large were much better off. (The NLD’s legendary leader Aung San Suu Kyi at least had the luxury of a shortwave radio during her long years of house arrest.) "You must remember the concept of democracy is quite new in Burma," says course instructor Min Yannaing Thein. "Most people have no experience of it." He, too, is a former political prisoner. 

The NLD faces a major challenge if it hopes to make the running two years hence. Over 1,300 seats will be up for grabs in the national election, spread across the upper and lower houses of parliament and regional assemblies. Yet the NLD, which has spent so many years struggling to keep itself alive, barely knows where to start. Last April, Aung San Suu Kyi led the party to an overwhelming victory in a limited round of parliamentary by-elections. The NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested. Yet a close advisor to the party privately admits that only a handful of their victorious candidates had the political knowledge and experience to do the job properly. The party faithful need training, and fast. 

The course is correspondingly basic. Spread across five days, it begins with a brief history of Burma and the fifty years of military rule. Then it moves on to descriptions of the country’s political institutions, the role of the media, and such boring but vital issues as office administration and budget transparency. 

Many of the participants in this particular course come from remote, far-flung regions of the country that have been ravaged by decades of civil war. All suffer from the dilapidated education system and limited transport or communications infrastructure. The distance and cost of the bus ride make trips to Yangon a rarity. For some, it is the first time they have interacted with senior members of the NLD outside their region. The course participants hail from Chin, Shan, and Karen states, as well as Nagas from the country’s far northwestern border with India. 

Their diversity vividly reflects the challenges that face Burma as it attempts to forge a democratic national identity after years of conflict fueled by a centralizing autocracy. One man from Shan state stands up to complain that the NLD lacks enough regional ethnic leaders and says there are too many Burmese representing his area. Another woman disagrees. As an ethnic Kachin living in the same state, she says, she doesn’t want the local party dominated by the majority Shan. It comes as little surprise that many of the students are eager to learn more about the practice and theory of federalism from countries that have learned to balance central power and regional identities. Participants also want to hear advice on persuading China (Burma’s other powerful neighbor) to help find solutions to the region’s conflicts, or on negotiating a permanent peace with the military.

The course is offered by a group called Bayda, a local civil society organization initially set up by activists to monitor elections in 2010. Its conclusion at the time — that the results were not even remotely free or fair — was not welcomed by the authorities. The activists were kicked out of their offices four times in the first year. "We could never prove it was pressure from the police, but the landlords would beg us to move on," says Bayda member Min Yannaing Thein. One landlady was reduced to crying on her knees in front of him as she pleaded with him to leave, he says. 

Now allowed to work freely, Bayda organizers are planning to establish small libraries around the country that can act as hubs for regional courses as well as giving locals a place to use the Internet, read previously-censored history books, and hold political meetings. Already, 38 of these community centers have been set up in places as far-flung as Muse on the Chinese border and Dawei on the Bay of Bengal. Bayda hopes to have 100 in operation by the end of the year. 

A young team of workers is visiting these centers to deliver training for those who can’t afford the trip to Yangon. Han Soe Tun, 31, has been with Bayda for only a couple of months, but has already traveled to six townships, staying in monasteries to keep down costs. "In rural areas, most people are still afraid to come to political training but there are always some activists who are hungry to learn." The police are curious but have so far left them alone. "We always ask the police to join in. They haven’t taken up the offer yet." 

The plan is to use this network to find four or five promising individuals in each of Myanmar’s 330 townships, who will then be brought to Yangon for an intensive, two-month course to prepare them to become election candidates. 

Meanwhile, at NLD headquarters in another part of town, another young activist has just set up the party’s first research unit, which he hopes will provide the basis for party policy in the future. The founder of the department, Nay Chi Win, is also its oldest member at the ripe age of 32. Currently, it is no more than a small group of volunteers working out of Nay Chi’s apartment and a small office in the ramshackle NLD building, poring over as much research material as they can find on transitional justice and the experiences of other fledgling democracies. 

They have built a loose network of around 30 other young activists from around the country who are collecting data on local conditions — particularly agricultural and health needs, as well as the performance of government institutions. Nay Chi enlisted his friend, Benedict Rogers, a well-known activist from the U.K. who has written several books on Burma, to offer short training courses for his team and enlist other international teachers, including Australian economist Sean Turnell and former ambassadors from Britain and the Czech Republic. "I asked Ben to find people who want to help Burma and won’t just come and ask for Aung San Suu Kyi’s autograph," said Nay Chi. "I told him not to ask what we need — we don’t know. We just need help." 

The transition to open politics has been rough on the NLD in recent months, exposing it to the sort of criticism and infighting that it never faced during its years as the moral conscience of the country. Last month brought the unprecedented sight of huge protests direct
ed against party leader Aung San Suu Kyi after a commission that she chaired refused to condemn a controversial copper mine project on the Chindwin River. 

Meanwhile, within the party, she faces complaints of being aloof and inaccessible. That is partly the result of her busy schedule and natural superiority — she remains by far the most capable and charismatic politician in the country — but several insiders also speak darkly about the small cabal of advisors that surround her, jealously guarding access and controlling the information she receives. They blame this group for some of her recent missteps, particularly her silence over the persecution of Rohingya Muslims and the ongoing war in Kachin state. "If she does not change this way of operating, it will be the death of her career and of the party," says one person with direct links to the highest levels of the NLD. Like others who raised these concerns, he spoke on condition of anonymity. 

But the emergence of new training and research programs — thanks largely to the efforts of a new generation of energetic young activists, rather than party veterans — offers hope of building a party that is more than simply a platform for its iconic leader. The scale of the challenge is daunting. Just two years ago, most of the NLD were underground, in prison or in exile. Now they have just two more to turn themselves into a government.