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Myanmar: What's next for Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party?

Tommy Walker in Bangkok
April 1, 2023

What does the future hold for Myanmar's National League for Democracy (NLD) now that the party has been dissolved by the country's military junta?

A protester holds a National League for Democracy (NLD) flag during a demonstration outside the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok
The NLD governed Myanmar with overwhelming majorities from 2015 to 2021 before being overthrown by the militaryImage: Peerapon Boonyakia/picture alliance/ZUMAPRESS/SOPA Images

Myanmar's ousted democracy party has vowed to fight on after the military government dissolved the party and dozens of others.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) failed to meet a registration deadline of March 28 ahead of a promised election.

Suu Kyi, 77, is currently serving a 33-year prison term after facing a variety of charges imposed by the military.

Her supporters say the charges were contrived to prevent her from participating in politics, but the pro-democracy party has vowed to continue, mobilizing its supporters and hoping for a future change in circumstances. 

Strict new electoral law

Myanmar's new Political Party Registration Law — which came into force in January 2023 — makes it difficult for political parties to stand for election and oppose junta control. 

Parties are now obliged to recruit 100,000 members within three months of registration — 100 times higher than the previous requirement.

And those looking to run for election must also open offices in at least half of Myanmar's 330 townships and contest at least half of all constituencies. They must also prove they hold funds of 100 million kyat (€43,800, $47,000).

Some 63 parties enrolled under the new law, while 40 failed to register, according to an announcement by state-run media.

A banner featuring Aung San Suu Kyi is displayed as protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup
The NLD won Myanmar's 2020 election, but in February 2021, the army seized powerImage: AFP

'Free and fair' elections

Myanmar politician Bo Bo Oo, who is a member of the NLD, dismissed the junta's tough registration law.

"In our view, since the coup, the [State Administrative Council] did get the power illegally. Then its effort on forming new [Union Election Commission] and making a new Party Registration Law are also illegal. We don't recognize the SAC's illegal written law."

The military has promised "free and fair" elections since the coup but with conflict continuing throughout the country, the junta extended Myanmar's state of emergency by a further six months in February, leaving no set date for new polls.

Currently, the clear favorite to win any upcoming poll is Myanmar's military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the political party that was hammered in the last elections.

But military opposition and Western politicians have said elections under these conditions would be a sham.

Aung Thu Nyein, a political analyst from Myanmar, said the registration law was created to favor certain political parties.

"[The] 2022 Political Party Law is the most restrictive and it's creating a distorted playing field. The law is made to decide who will the winner and losers in the next elections, which will not be conducive to a liberal democracy."

Germany condemns dissolution of NLD

In a press release, the German Foreign Ministry slammed the junta's decision to dissolve the pro-democracy party.

"We condemn the actions of the junta, which is acting without any basis in democracy or rule of law. With the dissolution of the parties, there is now a risk of a further escalation of violence in Myanmar and an accelerated destabilization of the country," the statement read.

"We call on the military in Myanmar to immediately end the violence, particularly the attacks on civilians and the brutal repression against the opposition, and to release all political prisoners."

What are the NLD's origins?

The National League for Democracy emerged from Myanmar's 1988 democracy uprising against military rule. It was led by Aung San Suu Kyi and won Myanmar's general elections in 2015 and 2020.

Following the 2020 victory, the military made unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud.

In February 2021, the military removed the ruling government and installed its officials as a "temporary" administration, with General Min Aung Hlaing taking charge.

The NLD has since lacked direction, Aung Thu Nyein said.

"The party lacks leadership and proper guidance to its voters and general population. It is understandable, many of its top leaders are in prison, and many have fled to the border, but the NLD leadership fails to make a strategic decision, in regards of this critical juncture," he added.

Uncertain future

But the democratic party have had it tough. Despite winning two elections, Myanmar's military has hinted at cracking down at its operations and some 1,235 NLD members have already been arrested by the military.

But perhaps even more alarming is that 26 arrestees have died during prison interrogations. Another 64 members were killed, according to NLD data.

With pressure mounting, questions remain about whether the party can continue to function under military control.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi is in detention having been sentenced to a total of 33 years in prison in various trialsImage: Dan Kitwood/PA Wire/empics/picture alliance

However the National League for Democracy remains defiant, its members say.

"Since the coup, our offices have been closed and we have been connecting through other ways," said NLD politician Kyaw Htwe.

Bo Bo Oo added that his party continues its dialogue both on local and international levels.

"From central level to the grassroots, despite the executives [who] were hunted by the junta, we convene regular meetings and run the party mechanism well. We are seeking and demand for the political prisoner's release and we continuously try hard to end the dictatorship. We open our dialogue gate for the ASEAN Five Point Consensus, and [make it] clear to the world that our speaker is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi."

However, Bo Bo Oo believes it will take a long time for things to change under the current military regime.

"I see no end to the impasse under Min Aung Hlaing. We will get a chance after his era. We are mobilizing the people and looking forward [for] a political turning point for the people power struggle. Party card carrying members are not happy but very optimistic for the future," he added.

Myanmar's coup sparked mass demonstrations across the country, but the junta has violently cracked down on opposition, which has in turn fueled an armed resistance movement from people defense forces and ethnic minority groups.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights watchdog based in Thailand, 3,185 people have been killed by the military, while over 17,000 people have been imprisoned for political reasons. The UN said over 1 million have been displaced because of the conflict.  

Edited by: Keith Walker

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco