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Failing to serve

Nicola Glass, Bangkok / sbMarch 7, 2013

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, which was banned under Myanmar's junta for decades, will have its first party congress from March 8 to 10 to set the course for 2015 elections.

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi talks during a meeting with South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye in Seoul on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. (Photo:Jung Yeon-je, Pool/AP/dapd)
Image: dapd

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party got back in Myanmar's political game since "The Lady," as Suu Kyi is fondly referred to in her home country, won in the parliamentary by-election on April 1, 2012. But the party's influence in a parliament that is dominated by former junta and military personnel is restricted.

From the very beginning of the NLD's time in parliament, critics attacked the party and accused party members of unprofessional conduct when the newly-elected parliamentarians refused to swear an oath to uphold Myanmar's controversial constitution. The party members instead sought to swear an oath to "respect" the constitution.

Many people still shake their head in disbelief at the boycott. "The NLD did not act properly," said Aung Thu Nyein of the Thai Vahu Development Institute. "They should get to work in the parliamentary process and push through political and economic reforms instead of fighting over the wording of an oath."

It seems as though the opposition still has something to learn about politics. Its election victory in 1990 was never recognized by the junta that was in power at the time. The military dictatorship suppressed and marginalized the NLD, putting Suu Kyi under house arrest.

Today, the party's leadership is quite old. The party will have to undergo a makeover and provide a comprehensive outline of its political agenda if it is to have any chance in the 2015 elections.

Myanmar pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, center, and elected lawmakers of her National League for Democracy party swear during a regular session of Myanmar Lower House at parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, May 2, 2012(Photo:Khin Maung Win/AP/dapd)
The NLD's refusal to swear to uphold the constitution caused a stirImage: AP

Controversial constitution

But the NLD has yet to outline its political agenda. During the election campaign last year, it focused mainly on changing Myanmar's constitution - the document that legitimizes the power of the military and takes away the rights of ethnic minorities. The document also includes a stipulation on foreigners which would restrict Suu Kyi from the office of president because she was married to an Englishman.

Thailand-based publicist Zin Linn said shortly before the NLD moved into parliament that "the NLD is stuck in a difficult position between the military and the rest of society, especially the ethnic minorities." He forecasted that Suu Kyi had the best interest of the people in mind, and would thus aim for a change to the constitution with support from the people - specifically, the various ethnic groups.

At the same time, the opposition will need support from the pro-military faction, which, independent of any elections, is constitutionally guaranteed to get 25 percent of seats in parliament.

Credibility in question

The NLD has been struggling to maintain its image as the opposition. There has been a recent internal spat over undemocratic agreements made ahead of the party congress, along with accusations that the party has been leaning toward the "civilian" regime. The party accepted donations from business partners who used to be in the ranks of the junta.

The party has also been silent on the deadly unrest between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, which was most likely provoked by military hardliners on Myanmar's west coast. Even pro-democracy activists have been participating in the racist campaigns against the Rohingya, whom the government does not officially recognize as an ethnic minority.

When asked whether or not Rohingya should receive citizenship, Suu Kyi answered, "I don't know."

Participants gather to mark the International Day of Peace in Yangon, Myanmar, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)
An end to the Kachin conflict is not foreseeableImage: dapd

Cold shoulder

This is how the NLD, the very symbol of the fight for human rights in Myanmar, has come to turn a cold shoulder on society's weakest. Meanwhile, ethnic minorities are extremely disappointed in the opposition.

One member of the ethnic Shan lamented that the government has "neutralized" Suu Kyi. And many ethnic Kachin criticize the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has refused to condemn the human rights violations committed by the military in the ongoing Kachin conflict.

A member of the Kachin minority group said they could trust neither government nor the opposition. "They have repeatedly lied to us. They are trying to destroy the Kachin," the individual said. "Not even Aung San Suu Kyi is interested in how many of our people die. She is simply ignoring us."

Suu Kyi's transformation from the icon of the democracy movement to a calculating politician transpired seamlessly. Maung Zarni, a Myamnar expert and co-founder of the Free Burma Coalition, said Suun Kyi "said herself that she would rather be a politician than an icon."

Suu Kyi will not only need support from a large part of the population in the 2015 elections; she will also need support from the military if she wants to have any chance at becoming the country's leader. "Whether or not she gains power very much depends on how willing she is to comply with the interests of the military," Zarni clarified. But should Suu Kyi fail to comply, she will be marginalized - and "three years is a long time in politics."