The NLD central election committee’s decision to exclude popular, respected figures from its candidates list generates a backlash within the party.
By OLIVER SLOW, MRATT KYAW THU & HANS HULST | FRONTIER
To understand politics in Myanmar, it helps to know its history. The Burmese kings wielded highly personalised power, which emanated from the centre.
As personalised power does not derive from an institution and is not shared or distributed, it can be difficult to challenge. This is one reason why the history of political parties in Myanmar is a history of schisms and breakaway groups. Ambitious politicians whose aspirations are stifled have no other option than to set up shop elsewhere.
Not much has changed in Myanmar politics since King Thibaw eliminated 83 potential rivals to the throne by having them tied into red velvet sacks and beaten to death.
Late last month, the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group, formed by student leaders of the popular uprising in 1988, announced that 17 of its prominent members, including Ko Ko Gyi, planned to contest the November 8 election as candidates for the National League for Democracy.
The announcement was the fruit of six rounds of talks that began in April with the NLD’s central election committee, chaired by the party’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The committee’s other members are the party’s patron, U Tin Oo, its spokesperson, U Nyan Win, an MP, and U Han Thar Myint, U Ohn Kyaing, and Win Myint. All are aged over 65, retirement age in most countries.
The talks produced an agreement for the 88 Generation members to run on the NLD’s ticket, party sources say. The group was further emboldened by approaches to Ko Ko Gyi from NLD officials in a number of constituencies to be their candidate.
Then the fruit of negotiation turned sour.
On August 2, the NLD announced a list of 1,090 election candidates, which excluded all the prospective 88 Generation candidates, except the quietly spoken and modest former political prisoner, Ko Pyone Cho. No reason was given for this awkward decision. It was made by election committee chair Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, according to several sources.
Also rejected as an NLD candidate was the popular Yangon regional hluttaw Independent MP and tireless campaigner against corruption, Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, even though the party had asked her to run in January. Another who failed to make the NLD’s list is a former temporary member of the party’s central executive committee, Dr Thein Lwin, from the National Network for Education Reform. He incurred the wrath of the party’s leadership in February, when it released a statement saying Dr Thein Lwin did not represent the NLD at negotiations on education reform, an issue in which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed particular interest.
Talks between Ko Ko Gyi and the NLD leader on August 6 failed to find a joint way forward.
Political analyst Dr U Yan Myo Thein criticised the NLD over the snubbings. “The fact that highly qualified candidates are not on the candidate list will affect the image of the party in a negative way,” he said. “Some of those on the NLD candidate list are not qualified to be parliamentary candidates. I suggest the party to rely on the proposals and decisions of the township party members.”
Officials of the NLD’s branch in Yangon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township agree.
They proposed three candidates to the central election committee: youth leader Ko Yan Aung, lawyer U Hla Myo Myint, and Ko Mya Aye, from the 88 Generation group, a Muslim. One of the reasons he was selected is because Mingalar Taung Nyunt has a large Muslim population.
Instead, the central election committee opted for the party’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt MP, Daw Phyu Phyu Thin. One implication of the decision is that there are no Muslims on the NLD’s candidate list.
The branch’s disgruntled finance manager, U Htay Myint, told Frontier at a news conference held to criticise the selection of Daw Phyu Phyu Tin that, “we don’t like her anymore. She didn’t keep her promise to work on healthcare in the township.”
Party officials also criticised Daw Phyu Phyu Tin for having failed to attend township branch meetings after December 2010. They said the 15 members of the township’s election campaign committee outlined their grievances in a letter to the party leadership.
Daw Phyu Phyu Thin dismissed the criticism and the claims that she is unpopular with her constituents. “Whatever, I love the way they’re fighting with me,” she said. “It is not their business; it is about people, my voters. I have to follow the NLD rules. I didn’t choose this constituency, the party did.”
It is the NLD’s centralised decision-making that has prompted scores of party members to resign in recent days.
In an impressive show of loyalty to the NLD, Ko Ko Gyi and Daw Nyo Nyo Thin held a news conference at the Royal Rose restaurant on August 6 to urge members not to abandon the party at such a critical time. Both expressed continued support for the NLD.
“I promised Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that we will support the NLD and all the other democratic forces and democratic ethnic groups,” said Ko Ko Gyi. “I want to say to people: calm down, be patient and support the democratic forces.” He confirmed he would not contest the election for any other group because he does not want to split the democratic vote and benefit the ruling Union Solidarity of Development Party.
Some NLD officials at the Royal Rose restaurant event were furious over the candidate list issue. The NLD’s campaign leader in South Okkalapa Township waved his fist in agitation when he asked Ko Ko Gyi what he was supposed to do next. “We don’t like this central decision. Ko Ko Gyi, you say we have to support the NLD. But why should I support somebody I don’t like?”
Daw Nyo Nyo Thin told the same event she will seek election to the Pyithu Hluttaw as an independent in Yangon’s Bahan Township, where her opponents will include the NLD candidate.
“I have to say that it is not a problem between the party and me, but it is a conflict of ideology between me and two or three executive committee members,” said Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, a lawyer. “The NLD has written rules and regulations, but unwritten rules as well. I wouldn’t know what exactly happened.”
In response to the controversy over the rejection of popular, respected figures from the candidate list, NLD spokesperson U Nyan Win has announced that it will be reconsidered by the central election committee.
Will Daw Nyo Nyo Thin accept a spot on the candidate list if it’s offered?
“No, I won’t accept if the NLD asks me,” she said firmly.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is apparently unfazed by the barrage of complaints and negative publicity. In the party’s vernacular journal, D-Wave, she was quoted in media reports as describing the controversy a “blessing in disguise” because it will reveal who is working for the party and who is acting out of self interest.
Frontier’s request for comment from the NLD leader was declined.
U Naing Naing, the patron of the United National Democratic Organisation, says the candidate list saga shows that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is incapable of playing the unifying role in national politics played by her father.
“She should bring political groups together,” he said. “But she has failed to do that and failed to do her duty.”
Up in his heavenly abode King Thibaw is probably nodding his head in appreciation.