Aung San Suu Kyi

Growing pains lie ahead for Suu Kyi's party

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am

It is perhaps hard to remember that less than two years ago Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the old men of her National League for Democracy (NLD) were at one of their lowest ebbs.

Suu Kyi was under house arrest, hundreds of other activists in jail or exile and their headquarters shuttered, along with shops selling her writings and posters.

Worse still, various reports suggested their very relevance was being called into question by Myanmar's younger generation, many of whom were not even been born when their struggle began 22 years earlier.

On Sunday, however, the old men were back, dancing in the front row of a crowd swaying to political rap songs at party headquarters in celebration of Suu Kyi's by-election landslide.

The state media has confirmed that the NLD won 43 of 44 seats it contested against candidates of the military-backed ruling party.

The crushing nature of the victory is a reminder of the immense reverence ordinary Myanmese feel for Suu Kyi as a political, moral, and even spiritual leader.

It also suggests the NLD, if left unmolested and uncensored, could be in a strong position to contest the national elections in 2015, when all 664 seats in both houses of parliament will be up for grabs.

However, some insiders believe that the results may be a little flattering. The NLD, they say, still has a long way to go in organisational terms, given their long years under the jackboot since its landslide victory in 1990 - a win that was never honoured by the former junta.

Sunday's result represented a massive outpouring of support for Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy ideals rather than for individual candidates, they warn.

'They've got a lot of hard work ahead now,' said a veteran Yangon journalist with long experience of the NLD. 'The party leadership is going to have to be regenerated and they have only really started building a national network. Some of their candidates are still very flaky, but it didn't matter this time around.

'Obviously if they are going to have a go at national power, then they are going to have to be very well prepared. History tells us their military opponents are formidable, to say the least.'

NLD campaign manager Nyan Win has acknowledged that a key lesson from the election was problems caused by ward and village committees not having enough resources - from offices to basic equipment.

Their Yangon base shows this all too clearly - with its tin roof, concrete floor and broken furniture it feels more like an abandoned shophouse than a political nerve centre. Suu Kyi has said repeatedly that rebuilding the party after years of repression remains a priority, and she wants to get young blood into the ranks, even though she insists all candidates must be graduates.

For all the clever use of Myanmese rap and upbeat country songs at Suu Kyi's packed rallies, the party still presents an image grounded in seniority.

When the 66-year-old Nobel Peace laureate appears in formal settings, she is often flanked by her ageing executive council in traditional dress. They include octogenarian figures such as NLD co-founder and deputy chief Tin Oo, 85, a former general who once served under her father in the late 1940s. Nyan Win himself is nearly 70.

However, the leadership faces having to absorb recently released prisoners from allied movements, such as the one-time student leaders of Generation 88 or the even younger Generation Wave, a group of young graffiti artists and activists rounded up and jailed in 2007. Generation 88 leaders spent years in solitary confinement in Yangon's notorious Insein Prison and have yet to formally tie the grouping to the NLD movement.

Rap singer Zayar Thaw, a Generation Wave activist, contested and won a seat under the NLD banner in the country's new capital, Naypyidaw. More young faces are expected to be tapped in the next year or so.

So far the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party has said little about the scale of the NLD's success, or how it will deal with a potential new rival.

For an indication of the historical baggage weighing down the NLD's struggle, you only have to glance at the title of a recently reprinted political tract now available for sale on the streets of Yangon.

The New Burma carries the subtitle From Fascist Bondage to New Democracy. Published in late 1945, the book details the work of Suu Kyi's father, General Aung San and his Burma Patriotic Front.