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National League for Democracy: R.I.P…?

Does today mark the end of the road for Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, headed by detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi? The party’s decision to boycott elections this year triggered its dissolution and has split the Burmese pro-democracy movement, and tonight the Rangoon headquarters, long a bastion of the anti-military struggle in Burma, will close its doors for the last time. Four leading Burmese figures talk to DVB about the successes and failures of the party and its possible future role in the military-ruled country.

Zoya Phan – international coordinator of Burma Campaign UK and daughter of late Karen National Union leader, Pado Mahn Shah

The most important thing is that the NLD has always fought for the people. If you look at the past decade, the NLD always made decisions about caring for people and democracy, and I think the NLD made a very difficult decision to not participate in these elections. For the Karen and for ethnic people, we are in the same boat; we knew that this dictatorship’s elections will not bring any change in Burma – there will be no democracy, there will be no human rights – and the NLD knew this very well. I think the NLD made the right decision and I think the cycle will continue.

The important thing to remember is that the relationship between the NLD and ethnic nationalities has become better recently – for the ethnic people their struggle is not just for democracy but also for ethnic rights and the NLD has come to understand better the decision of ethnic groups. There hasn’t been any significant political success in Burma, but it’s very important that the NLD has maintained its principals for democracy. The NLD has handled military pressure very well; the military uses power to crush all opposition, including ethnic nationalities, ceasefire groups, warlords, and so on. The junta’s aim is very clear – to destroy democracy.

I was in Burma last month in the Papun area [of Karen state] visiting internally displaced people and I met with people who had escaped from mortar bombing by Burmese troops. I asked them if they were aware of the elections, and they had no idea – some people didn’t have a clue what was happening in different parts of Burma. Everyday they are trying to survive, fleeing to the jungle because their villages are being destroyed by the Burmese army. I told one of them about the elections, and asked if there would be any difference, and he said that they don’t feel anything at all, that anything will change except that the regime will increase its troops in different parts of Burma.

Aung Naing Oo – political analyst and former foreign affairs secretary of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF)

Today is quite significant; no, very significant. When the NLD made the decision I thought it was the beginning of a series of meetings – I was astounded by the fact that there was only one meeting and only one position; not to contest the election, nothing else. So basically the characteristics of the decision are the unity, the principle, the moral high ground; the total disdain, total dislike for the military rule, the military election laws and the elections. It also shows the extreme power of Aung San Suu Kyi; how much power she wields on the party. I have said that the party and her are one, so whatever she says becomes party policy as she demonstrated in that meeting.

The other thing is the NLD’s credentials as a democratic organisation, because they said they would take a secret vote, and so on. But Aung San Suu Kyi’s preference was disclosed before the voting, which swayed the majority of the party leadership.

So these are the questions that have been raised time and again, but it is the NLD decision and we respected that. But what is really intriguing is that there is no plan B for political activists. What are they going to do now? They cannot boycott the election, they will no longer be a political grouping, any kind of political gathering will be closely watched, and so on. Even the activists demand the NLD do something, but I don’t know what they can do. For those of us who wanted the NLD in contention there is no plan B either. Of course the moderate voices were not properly addressed. So what will happen is the moderate voices will form a party of their own because it was not strategically abolished and re-orientated. So I can see the moderates and hard liners undermining each other in the hunt for democracy

The NLD itself apologised for not being able to live up to the expectations of the people, so I have no comment on [whether they failed as a party]. Basically they came clean on their own failure, which I think is very, very good. In a democratic society, as a political party or a leader, when you cannot deliver you come clean and you admit it, and that was very beautiful and I supported it wholeheartedly.

[Aung San Suu Kyi] is not the quiet type. She will not go quietly and she will likely team up with the uncles again and will continue to speak out against injustice. So she will continue to be a thorn in the military’s side. The uncles have devoted their lives to democracy so although I often think that 2010 can be their retirement year I don’t think some of them will be retiring this year. They will continue on to their last days. If the NLD can shed their political image and truly engage in social and developmental issues, I think that could be a very good direction for the party.

You can never tell [whether political repression will hinder the NLD] because if it truly engages in social issues where the military has failed disappointingly then they might be able to do something. And now the NLD is not in contention for power anymore it might be able to do social work. But their credentials as a social organisation do not speak volumes; NLD is a political organisation, not a social organisation. So it would be good if the NLD could shed its political image and embark on a new road into the community, working with the community closely. But if they try and combine politics and their social work then that could be a lethal combination. That’s the sad truth – the USDA can do anything they want; they have blurred the lines between social work and politics. We have different rules for different people in Burma. Different rules for the [government] and the NLD. It’s a sad truth. Whereas the USDA can do anything, the NLD will be limited in their work. So what I am saying is that they have a very uncertain future.

U Win Tin: NLD Central Executive Committee member and former political prisoner

Today is significant as a day of mourning because it is the last day for us as a registered party. We’ve been established for more than 20 years, but it’s not just us, it is other people who were there in the popular uprising of 1988. The party belongs to the uprising and to all the people who marched.

[Regarding the NLD’s success over the past 20 years] the proven thing is that we won the 1990 elections with a landslide victory and the government ignored the numbers of candidates who won votes. We got huge support from the people as a whole, who have been living under a military dictatorship for more than three decades – when they got the chance to vote following the 1988 uprising they got the courage to vote for us overwhelmingly. So the NLD has been very successful in terms of people’s support and as a political movement.

Our party came from the people of 1988; at that time of course we didn’t have an experienced political leader – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Un Tin Oo and so on were new, so we hadn’t worked for any political party before. But we joined together and formed a party and worked out a political agenda and worked for the people and won the 1990 elections. Now we are no longer a political party so of course we cannot work as a political party; we cannot convene meetings and release statements. Anyhow, we are now going to work for the people as a whole so I think we have a new legitimacy, some skills and determination so that we can work for the people in the future. There’s an English expression – I don’t know if it’s right or not – the ‘body politic’; there is politics among the people, not as a party, not as an ideology… People have politics among them, and we will have a chance to consolidate the people’s political views and we will link our political thinking together with the body politics. Then I think we will find some success in being effective for the people.

Harn Yawnghwe – executive director of the Euro-Burma office and son of Sao Shwe Thaike, first president of the Union of Burma

In terms of the reality on the ground I don’t think the dissolution of the NLD will make a difference; in terms of influencing international opinion, the fact that it’s no longer a legal party might not help.

I think to be associated with the NLD, it’s not likely they can be effective because if they try and do anything the military will crack down. So the best bet may be to work with another political organisation. I don’t know who however because I am not in Burma and it may be different for different individuals.

It is difficult to say [whether they’ve been a success or failure] because I am not part of the party; I am not at liberty to form an opinion from the outside. Given their position I would say that the majority of the problem would be with the military; on the other hand I would say that there was paralysis on the part of the executive committee who seemed to be unable to act without Aung San Suu Kyi’s input. With her being under house arrest that restricted them – she was such a powerful figure that no one was able to do anything on their own they were always looking to her, over their shoulder.

I think the fact if the matter is that the NLD was the party of hers, not the other way round. So the fact that the party is no longer in existence will have no bearing on her she will continue to play a very strong role; whether positive or negative for the military it is something they will have to work out with her.

I can understand the reasoning [behind the election boycott] and why they did that but if you look at the junta’s election law, boycotting it is absolutely the wrong thing to do – according to the election law if there are no competitors to them the military win by default.


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