US wary of ‘sclerotic’ opposition leaders

Washington’s former Charge d’Affaires to Burma had expressed heightened scepticism about the leadership abilities of the senior members of the opposition National League for Democracy’s senior in a 2008 diplomatic cable leaked today.

Shari Villarosa, who left her post at the US embassy in Rangoon shortly after the 14 July 2008 cable, said that the young guard of Burma’s pro-democracy movement were “frustrated with the sclerotic leadership” of the party’s elders, in reference to what she claimed was their inability to open up to new ideas.

She further noted that it is “telling” that the “Uncles” of the party – a term used to describe the elders – remained out of jail, whilst many younger democrats were in jail. This is despite the fact that many senior NLD members had already served lengthy prison terms.

It also looked to the 7 November elections, and seemingly failed to predict the scale of the fraud involved. “Many of the younger political activists are turning away from the NLD and preparing to run in the 2010 parliamentary elections, to effect political change any way they can”.

Burmese analyst Aung Naing Oo said that the period in which the cable was written was one of stagnation. “This was a time when nothing was moving, when Aung San Suu Kyi was in prison. It was time when there was a lot of dissent in the NLD and the opposition movement [and] it has to do with timing – this was one of their most difficult times.”

Villarosa elaborates on the supposed affliction:  “The ‘Uncles’ have repeatedly rebuffed the most dynamic and creative members of the pro-democracy opposition, who reinvigorated [it] throughout 2006 and 2007 by strategically working to promote change through grass-roots human rights and political awareness and highlighting the regime’s economic mismanagement.”

The Charge d’Affaires was in the job during the September 2007 protests that came to be known as the ‘Saffron Revolution’ – a movement which she seems frustrated did not have the full backing of the NLD.

This, she claims, was despite “repeated overtures from, and ‘summits’ with, the leaders of the 88 Generation in 2007 [which] failed to result in any significant cooperation… Its leaders refused to support the demonstrators last September, and even publicly criticized them.

“Nor has the party made any effort to join forces with the technically sophisticated bloggers and young, internet-savvy activists, who have been so clever at getting out the images which repeatedly damaged the regime and undermined its international credibility.”

Indeed Aung Naing Oo notes that as well as being a difficult time for the NLD, the embattled party are perpetually obsessed with unity, somewhat like their military opponents, also acting undemocratically to fend off splits in the party.

Villarosa also notes that the “…lack of unity among the pro-democracy opposition remains one of the biggest obstacles to democratic change in Burma”.

She adds, rather scathingly, that “most MPs-elect show little concern for the social and economic plight of most Burmese, and therefore, most Burmese regard them as irrelevant.”

That MPs elected in the last elections in 1990 are considered “irrelevant” will not come as news given the amount of time that has elapsed, but the statement about lack of concern paints a further dim view of the NLD amongst embassy staff. This may well be a personal opinion based on meetings rather than an objective observation, given that the party never took office.

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