This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 21 September 2015
It is inevitable that after all the hype, some people are frustrated with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.
The NLD is still largely defined by her aura. Without Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the party would, on current form, struggle for prominence among the various competing factions vying for the top jobs. Her custodianship of the General Aung San legacy, and her pivotal role in more than a quarter-century’s democratic agitation, gives her an unrivalled status.
Such status means the NLD leader is not treated like other politicians. It has enabled her to postpone serious policy development even though, in the five years since she was released from house arrest, there have been ample opportunities to create a new vision for Myanmar’s future.
Many were baffled when the NLD’s candidate lists were published: Few of the serious ’88 generation players were given a chance to shine. The party also opted to avoid endorsing any Muslim candidates.
Both decisions point to the timidity of the NLD, now so anxious to keep narrow-minded nationalist voters on side they won’t even stand up for basic principles about merit and inclusion.
Instead the party that goes to the 2015 election is a pale facsimile of the one that many of its boosters had imagined. Beyond The Lady’s familiar presence the party has little of the excitement that will lead people to anticipate a new kind of politics for the country.
This is partly the outcome of the restrictions that the NLD has contended with during its tentative engagement with Nay Pyi Taw’s new political institutions. Since their election in April 2012, they have stayed quiet, bided their time, and worked to ensure that they cannot be wedged on topics like the Rohingya or ethnic conflict.
Now that campaigning is under way, the NLD will get a bump because of the historic terms of this vote. Some of those same ’88 generation figures who have been excluded from the NLD look like they will support the democratic thrust spearheaded by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It makes sense that they are waiting for a further set of changes before they take charge.
For now, though, the NLD and its leaders stare down three interlocking problems.
First, and most controversially, there is the status of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself. There is no doubt that she deserves the plaudits for her courage in confronting the old military dictatorship. She is braver, more resilient and more committed than even her fans tend to acknowledge.
She is also notoriously stubborn, fails to take good advice and stumbles, regularly, when forced to deal with more skilled political opponents. We can still hope that she could grow into the role of national stateswoman in the years ahead.
But it may also be too late to expect any serious modification in her approach to politics. That means the NLD will not benefit from a senior leader who is consultative, tolerant of difference and prepared to change her mind.
Second, there are implications for policy development. It is unfair to expect the NLD, with its limited resources, to have worked up a full plan for government, but it is reasonable to hope that they will have some more practical contributions to election debate.
The release last week of a 20-page policy manifesto suggests the NLD wants to champion a responsive and efficient government, mandate a curtailed role for the armed forces, and bring a democratic emphasis to foreign policy.
Yet having talked for so long in such generalities there is a hunger for the NLD to show the people what they can offer. Abbreviation rarely leads to good government.
The international community will also want to know much more about what a future NLD government will seek to achieve. Its ageing socialist cadres, some of whom wield surprising influence, may not have the same democratic instincts as the liberals who have flocked to the NLD cause.
Third, on the list of pressing issues is the NLD’s preoccupation with structural constraints. After so many decades on the sidelines it took real courage following the 2010 election for the NLD to re-engage with a political system so drastically weighted against them.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has exhausted herself with demands that the constitution be amended in her favour. It has been an indulgent campaign that fits her personal requirements but has never gained much popular traction. The fact is that very few people, even NLD supporters, seem to really care about esoteric matters of constitutional precedence.
When push comes to shove, and when ballots are cast, they want leaders who speak up for their interests, genuinely care about the struggles of the masses and have a plan for what should happen next.
They also have very low expectations based on a lifetime of disappointment with politics and politicians. It would be a tragedy if the NLD failed to lift the standard.
Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala.