Myanmar’s democracy party struggles with democracy

The future of Myanmar's National League for Democracy (NLD) seemed preordained when the trammels of political repression were removed in 2012. The party would parlay the popularity of its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and coast to victory in the 2015 elections over a ruling party led by widely despised former generals. But democracy is messy, and even its most fervent adherents can slip once the real challenges of governance and politics surface.

The NLD has stumbled in the past few months and its trajectory is now less certain. The party faces a growing list of constituent demands and the ruling Union and Solidarity Development Party (USDP) has demonstrated a talent for political maneuvering that is improving its outlook.

The NLD's internal disorder is in part a natural consequence of having to shift its focus from opposing a hated military government to winning an election in a diverse country. Burma has 135 recognized ethnic groups, many of which live along the eastern, western, and northern borders. Some of them have never yielded to rule by an outside force, making the majority-ethnic Burman NLD's task of building an effective national party more difficult. But the party has also been accused of mishandling internal party elections, delaying the first party congress until the second week of March. Several hundred disgruntled members defected from the party in Pathein several months ago, and recently party members gathered in Mandalay to protest party election fraud. The aging party leaders are also rumored to be excluding party youth from the policymaking process, which could result in more defections that could bolster the NLD's competitors or provide the core of new parties ahead of the 2015 national elections.

Aung San Suu Kyi's new role has also forced her to make compromises that have alienated some would-be NLD supporters. She has exhibited greater pragmatism and less ideological conviction in her role as member of parliament than she did as an activist. Though her silence on the Rohingya humanitarian crisis is less problematic in Myanmar than it is among international donors, Aung San Suu Kyi has not won allies through her silence on the conflict in Kachin State. Her silence may cost the NLD dearly if it finds that it must rely on ethnic parties to form a ruling coalition after the 2015 elections, much as the NLD did in 1990 when it formed an alliance with ethnic coalition the United Nationalities League for Democracy.

Meanwhile, the USDP has improved its ability to govern, thanks in part to personnel changes that have promoted technocrats and its experience with the exercise of power. The USDP has been increasingly vocal about taking credit for the recent political liberalization, and as economic liberalization begins to improve the standard of living, the party's leaders will no doubt seek to burnish the USDP's reputation. From a policy perspective, this means that development will likely be steered toward areas that return the biggest, quickest, and most obvious improvements in living standards, which includes areas such as electrification, telecoms, and agriculture.

Finally, the USDP will use the familiar divide-and-rule tactic of the past, working to undermine their opponents by fostering personality-based rivalries and distrust across ethnic lines. The USDP and military have pursued an aggressive effort to broker ceasefire deals with 11 groups since November 2011, whom they will then encourage to register as political parties. If successful, this tactic will force the implicit acceptance of the 2008 Constitution by Myanmar's ethnic groups and will also present the NLD with new challenges in minority ethnic electoral districts. And if the NLD cannot improve its relationship with ethnically based parties -- either because of concerns about the selection of local party officials or because of its silence on the Kachin -- then it may find itself competing with them instead of building a coalition. That outcome would divide the opposition vote and cede the advantage to the USDP.

Similarly, in an effort to raise the stock of the breakaway NLD competitor, the National Democratic Force, President Thein Sein on Feb. 6 appointed one of its members of parliament as the first non-USDP cabinet minister. And if Thein Sein feels he can succeed, he may also encourage the pro-democracy group, 88 Generation Students (88 GS), to form a party. The organization's moral authority in Myanmar approaches that of Aung San Suu Kyi, and an 88 GS party would challenge NLD's pro-democracy bona fides.

The result is that the NLD is too weak to shape the reform agenda for the next three years, and perhaps longer. Aung San Suu Kyi is probably aware of this and as a result will be careful not to overreach and risk alienating international stakeholders. For the USDP's part, Thein Sein and his cabinet will continue with reforms that are intended in part to gradually legitimize both the military and the USDP while entrenching their privileged economic and political positions.

Christian Lewis is a researcher in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.

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