The National League for Democracy (NLD) has begun its campaign for Myanmar’s 2015 general election and any thoughts that it will be an easy ride into government should be well and truly gone.
Myanmar’s largest opposition party is holding its first congress in the former capital, Yangon. That, in itself, is another sign of the reforms the partly civilian government is undertaking. Under the previous military regime, such a large gathering of political agitators was prohibited out of fear it would pose a threat to the nation’s stability.
Those pressures have eased now that the NLD is officially in opposition and some of its members have seats in parliament, including party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but now there are internal pressures to contend with.
The first signs emerged last year when hundreds of NLD members protested against what they claimed were unfair internal election processes and that the party was being run in an authoritarian way. Some of the leaders of those protests were temporarily suspended from the party.
Then, just days before the congress, four candidates for places on the central committee were thrown out of the process for allegedly trying to cause rifts within the party.
The contenders were not contacted by party officials to explain the decision, nor were they given the right of reply. They were simply sent a brief statement that was also handed out to the media.
Respected party elder Win Tin said the decision could harm unity within the NLD and dismissed it as an over-reaction. He also said it reminded him of decisions made when the country was under military rule, a dire and worrying statement given the democratic principles his party is supposed to stand for.
That sentiment has been voiced before by some other current and former members who claim efforts by people in the rural areas to introduce more transparency and democratic practices to the party are ignored by those who hold the power in Yangon.
Another complaint that seems to be becoming more common is that unless you “cozy up” to the old guard, your chances of advancing within the organization, or having your voice heard, will be limited.
The leadership has responded by saying they do not try to stifle freedom of speech or criticism. Instead, they have said they are trying to prevent factions developing as they attempt to make the internal workings of the party more democratic. In essence, they have said, this is a learning process.
NLD leaders are also well aware of the fact the members of the central executive committee are perhaps well past their prime and that an injection of youth is desperately needed.
The internal issues come after increasing pressure both from within the country and outside to start being more vocal about the important issues facing Myanmar.
Despite being an advocate for human rights, Suu Kyi has refused to take a strong stand for either side following last year’s violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State. Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims also remain in camps, but still nothing substantial has come from the NLD or its leader.
Suu Kyi is believed to be fast losing support in Kachin State after refusing to denounce the government’s use of airstrikes against rebels and attacks on civilian areas. She has said she is willing to help in any peace process, but is waiting for an invitation from the government.
Of course, Suu Kyi and her party remain very popular in most parts of the country and it is clear they are trying to play a delicate political game in the run up to the election which, judging by history, they should win.
As the NLD evolves, however, so do the voters. As each day passes in Myanmar’s new era, people are becoming more politically aware. Many are standing up for their rights and demanding answers and solutions from the government. They are now also demanding the same from the opposition.
Those demands will only grow louder over the next two years and any weaknesses in the NLD will be seized upon by retired and serving generals who are very keen to retain power.