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Is Burma’s Opposition Ready for the Post-Aung San Suu Kyi Era?

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been burning bridges to her old allies.

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Burma has a national election coming up in a few months, and its outcome is uncertain. But one thing is already clear: Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the immensely popular leader of the democratic opposition, won’t be a candidate for president. That’s because the country’s military-dominated political establishment has refused to countenance any changes to the current constitution, which includes strictures that prevent her from becoming head of state.

And that, in turn, means that the opposition movement already has to start addressing an impending leadership vacuum. The problem has been compounded by Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to cultivate a successor. The election, scheduled for Nov. 8, would seem to offer an ideal opportunity for cultivating a new generation of political activists and pro-democracy politicians — not least because Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), currently doesn’t even have enough qualified candidates to contest every constituency that’s up for grabs. Yet when she recently had a chance to bring some fresh blood into her party’s electoral list, the Lady (as her admirers call her) demurred.

The general public, as well as a majority of the members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, are keen to see her seek unity with the largest and most respected pro-democracy group outside the NLD — namely the 88 Generation, made up of the leaders of the 1988 student-led uprising that transformed Burmese politics. (Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of activists were killed in the crackdown by the ruling military junta at the time.) The NLD’s Central Executive Committee had urged including leading members of the 88 Generation on the party’s electoral list. Yet the Lady recently shocked many of her supporters by rejecting the applications of more than 20 candidates (the precise number is unclear). She accepted only one.

The 88 Generation and Aung San Suu Kyi are old allies in the fight against dictatorship. The student revolt gave Aung San Suu Kyi her first opportunity to present herself as a national political leader. The NLD even adopted the student union’s symbolic fighting peacock as its own symbol. For more than a quarter-century, the members of the 88 Generation have supported Aung San Suu Kyi with unyielding faith. Its members endured harsh consequences for their loyalty, including long stints in prison. This year the group even stood by the Lady during her fruitless campaign to pressure the military into allowing constitutional amendments that would enable her to run for the presidency.

The NLD leaders’ rejection of the new recruits thus came as a particular shock. Observers were particularly caught off guard by Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to accept Ko Ko Gyi, a top leader of the group who spent over 17 years in prison for his political activities and who is widely regarded as a rising political star.

The Lady’s decision prompted unprecedented complaints and street protests by NLD activists across the country, who claimed that her ruling flouted party procedure. Hundreds of local NLD officials have either resigned or been expelled by the party as “punishment” for their refusal to go along.

Inside sources in both the NLD and the 88 Generation told me that the decision to turn down the new arrivals was Aung San Suu Kyi’s own. “She was afraid to recruit politically influential figures because she does not want any rivals for the throne of the party or the country,” said one former high-ranking party official. Key members of the 88 Generation told me that Aung San Suu Kyi said she was worried that accepting the newcomers might stimulate factional conflict within the party.

The paradox is painful. The woman who once articulated a powerful philosophy of “freedom from fear” now seems to have succumbed to it.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s rejection of the 88 Generation is not an isolated case. The party’s relations with other political allies are also strained. The NLD recently decided to contest almost every constituency in the states dominated by ethnic minority groups, which are usually represented by their own political parties — parties that are also natural friends of the NLD because of their opposition to the authoritarian policies of the central government. The NLD declined to negotiate with the ethnic minority parties about candidates and voting districts, deciding instead to treat the local political groups as outright electoral competitors. One of the most respected ethnic minority leaders, who once headed a body that brought together representatives of the NLD and the ethnic minority parties, has accused Aung San Suu Kyi and her party of “lying” to the ethnic minority political parties about their election plans.

The NLD also has poor relations with civil society groups, which used to be staunch supporters of the party. These groups accuse the party of disregarding democratic principles, above all its reluctance to denounce harsh government crackdowns on public protests, particularly the recent student demonstrations for an education reform bill. In June, NLD officials sought the help of civil society groups in checking for flaws in voter registration lists. Only a dozen groups, a small fraction of the total, agreed to cooperate with the NLD. Since then, though, even this limited collaboration has fallen apart.

So why has the Lady chosen to burn her bridges like this? There are two possible answers.

First, she believes that she can still lead the NLD to a landslide election triumph. She is firmly convinced that she can rely on her personal standing to carry her to victory. She has urged the crowds who greet her at rallies to “vote for the party, not the name of the candidate,” according to Radio Free Asia. Observers believe it is highly likely that the NLD will win the popular vote and control of the lower house of parliament, but that still won’t give it control of the government or the presidency, given the constraints placed upon Burma’s political system by the current constitution, which was drawn up under the old military regime.

Second, Aung San Suu Kyi has apparently been banking on her recent political friendship with Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament, to help her forge a post-election coalition. Some NLD insiders had suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi might endorse Shwe Mann — himself a former general with ties reaching deep into the political establishment — as a presidential candidate, rather than someone from her own party. Her hope, apparently, was that, once in power, Shwe Mann would push through the reforms that would enable her to run for president later on. This strategy would help to explain her rather cavalier attitude toward so many of her longtime allies.

The generals, however, have now thwarted this plan. On Aug. 12, in what some have described as a miniature “coup,” the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) purged Shwe Mann from his post as the head of the party (thus effectively robbing him of his power base in parliament). His fate now appears precarious, and his alliance with Aung San Suu Kyi has become a liability. (Reuters reported that Shwe Mann was removed from the USDP thanks to his “ties to rival party leaders,” citing the president’s spokesman.) The political demise of Shwe Mann now dramatically narrows Aung San Suu Kyi’s options in post-election horse-trading. The loss of her ally from the ruling elite may well mean the end of her last chance to achieve the presidency.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s strategic blunder on alliance politics has not only created a leadership vacuum within her party. It is also likely to prompt a split within the main opposition party once the elections are over. Her authoritarian leadership style, her failure to build up proper party institutions, and the likely inflow of opportunists after an election victory will all contribute to a more fragmented party in the future.

Unless the second-tier leaders of the overall opposition movement begin serious preparations for the post-Aung San Suu Kyi era, the movement will face serious problems. Even if the NLD wins the most votes in the November election, Burma will still have a long way to go before it achieves anything remotely resembling a democracy. But the country might get there a little bit faster if the new generation of opposition leaders can find a way to unify the pro-democracy movement once again.

The photo above shows Aung San Suu Kyi registering as an election candidate at a district court in Rangoon.
Photo credit: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Corrections, Aug. 19, 2015: Aung San Suu Kyi told supporters to “vote for the party, not the name of the candidate,” according to Radio Free Asia. An earlier version of this article mistakenly quoted her as saying, “vote for the party, without taking into consideration the ‘stature’ of those selected to contest the election, and not even giving a look at the name of the candidate.” The words “without taking into consideration the ‘stature’ of those selected to contest the election” were written by an Irrawaddy reporter when paraphrasing Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarks. Burma’s ruling party is the Union Solidarity and Development Party. An earlier version of this article mistakenly called it the Union Social Development Party. Based on an interview with the president’s spokesman, Reuters reported that Shwe Mann was removed from the USDP thanks to his “ties to rival party leaders.” An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed the quote “ties to rival party leaders” directly to the spokesman.

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