The National League for Democracy was born 33 years ago this week. Before the military coup on 1 February it was Myanmar’s government party on the verge of a second transformational term. Now the democratic movement that stood in opposition to the junta is underground again.
Former leaders have been arrested and members are persecuted by the regime. But the NLD was built in and for the 1990s underground while forging close ties with ethnic nationality parties sharing its hatred of the military regime. While relations with ethnic groups have strained and international public opinion has turned on the party, Myanmar voters never have.
The NLD was forged in revolution. When protests against the ruling military junta swept Myanmar in 1988, disaffected elites formed a new party to rid the country of failing military rule notable for oppression, economic stagnation and isolation.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s anti-colonial hero, Aung San, had become the icon of the democracy movement and was invited to join the NLD. While the 1988 uprising was suppressed, the party survived and the abortive revolution prompted the beleaguered regime to make concessions including multi-party elections in 1990 and an unfulfilled promise to transfer power to the winner.
The NLD ran on a simple platform: Constitutional reform, federal democracy, liberal economic management and services to the people. The party built a strong coalition with ethnic nationality parties based on a shared commitment to federal democracy. Putting forward a slightly amended draft of Myanmar’s original 1947 federal democratic constitution, the NLD planned to convene a constitutional convention and consult the people over a two-year time frame.
The military regime stalled, insisting on a constitutional drafting process that would drag on for years while continuing an opposition crackdown. In 1998, the NLD and allies including the Shan Nationalities League of Democracy (SNLD) formed the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament, supported by a majority of MPs elected in 1990.
while it does not always feature, federal democracy is their platform. People understand that and they respond to the positivity – the aspiration for and the promise of change
This committee was the inspiration for today’s Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), part of the National Unity Government (NUG), the current opposition executive body formed by the NLD with a number of new ethnic political party allies after the 1 February coup.
The platform was a winning recipe. In the 1990 general election, the NLD secured a super-majority by taking 80% of seats with 60% of all votes cast and won the first of four successive elections, with the exception of the boycotted 2010 general election.
This majority has proved stable since, with NLD wins in 2012, 2015 and 2020 against the prediction of analysts who expected the military party of the day and ethnic nationality parties to do much better.
“The NLD spoke to people on a range of issues: Constitutional change and jobs and health and labour. And while it does not always feature, federal democracy is their platform. People understand that and they respond to the positivity – the aspiration for and the promise of change.” said Janelle Saffin, a long-term Myanmar observer.
Ethnic nationality political parties also ran in 1990 with some success. But when they also boycotted the 2010 election, they were replaced by new parties with a few exceptions, notably the SNLD. With a lack of continuity, it is no surprise there are no parties able to rival the NLD in experience or organisational depth.
The NLD endured two decades in the underground because it was able to develop the structures of a mass political party. These included a strong central administration topping a pyramid structure of party branches in states and regions, districts, townships, all the way down to ward and village tracts, Myanmar’s lowest tier of public administration, and an unrivalled internal coherence based on a culture of sacrifice.
“(We) gathered some people who were really active and they decided through semi-democratic voting, electing the people with the most prominent history of activism and the most sacrifices,” U Aung Kyi Nyunt, an NLD central executive committee member and now CRPH chair, explained in 2019.
This may not be the best way to select leaders in government, but it builds and preserves the internal coherence of the party and enables the NLD to survive intact in the underground. The party had 2 million members and 313 national branch offices in 2015, an unrivalled structure in Myanmar.
The NLD took the reins of government in February 2016 in a climate of hope and enormous goodwill among all partners and sky-high domestic and international expectations. Inevitably, many would be disappointed.
The dramatic fall from grace of Aung San Suu Kyi in the eyes of international public opinion over the party’s free use of draconian libel laws and her spirited defence against charges of genocide against the Rohingya minority overshadowed the NLD’s success in fulfilling what it had consistently promised since 1990.
For most people, the NLD made life better by advancing civil rights, notably freedom of assembly and movement, reducing corruption, liberalising the economy and inviting foreign investment. The party expanded healthcare and education services and made two attempts to initiate constitutional change, both thwarted by the military.
The NLD points to an uneasy cohabitation with the military, which could block reforms, as a cause of inaction on key issues such as civil rights and the Rohingya genocide. The NLD set up the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which recommended improvements for the Rohingya, although not much has been implemented. On libel laws, the NLD government simply may have found them useful.
A bigger issue was the profound deterioration of relations between NLD and its erstwhile ethnic allies. In the 2015 election, the NLD fielded candidates in what its ethnic nationality partners think of their constituencies instead of making electoral alliances. The NLD won most of these constituencies.
For reasons of power politics, the NLD voted down a proposed constitutional amendment, supported by the military and ethnic parties, which would have strengthened state and regional parliaments’ control over their governments. The NLD reached out to ethnic parties after the election to mend fences, but was cut short by the February coup.
The NLD finds itself again fighting a revolution with new leadership. In the early days of the coup, the party was a bystander dazed by the military’s strike against its leaders. Activists, students and civil servants organised the Civil Disobedience Movement, which practices nonviolent resistance, and steered the revolution in a progressive direction.
The democratic opposition harkens back to the 1990s to find consensus on constitutional principles underlying a future federal democratic union. A forum dubbed the National Unity Consultative Council has brought together a variety of opposition actors including ethnic political and armed organisations, trade unions, civil society groups and youth activists carrying on the early resistance to the coup. Here, distrust of the NLD runs higher.
Our joint vision is equality, peace and justice, to create a country where there is no discrimination and injustice
The current NUG, which includes some NLD members, has some policies that are significantly more progressive than the old NLD administration. The NUG has recognised the Rohingya as a nationality and opened a pathway to citizenship, accepted the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction and established a human rights ministry.
“Our joint vision is equality, peace and justice, to create a country where there is no discrimination and injustice,” said Aung Myo Min, a prominent Myanmar activist turned NUG human rights minister. “We are definitely on a learning curve in the government. We have people coming out of single-party government who are not used to compromise. We have ethnic nationality politicians and we have independents and activists without experience in administration. But we are making progress.”
The coalition against the junta is welded together by necessity and the revolution is going well compared to 1988. Half the country’s civil servants remain on strike. The NUG and its ethnic armed allies are fighting back and holding territory while affiliated militias wage a guerrilla warfare campaign across the country. They are united in resistance and have the population’s support.
If the democratic opposition were to win, a difficult transition would follow. Trust and a shared vision are required to keep the coalition together while reaching out to representatives of ethnic nationality groups currently staying above the fray.
A new federal democratic Myanmar would be more diverse and decentralised than before the coup. Ethnic parties may have a shot at governing states and more of a say in devolved policy areas like education and health. The electoral system could change to proportional representation, which would shrink the outsized majorities in the first-past-the-post system created for the NLD.
Political parties have not received the attention from development partners they should have. Everyone expects them to just be and function. It is not that easy.
In the centre the NLD would reign virtually unopposed, having led and survived two revolutions, broken military rule and delivered constitutional government. Ethnic nationality parties, perhaps with the exception of the SNLD, are either marginal, not well institutionalised or not seriously interested in national politics. It would take more than a generation for another party to form a national platform able to compete with the NLD.
“Political parties have not received the attention from development partners they should have,” Saffin said. “Everyone expects them to just be and function. It is not that easy.”
Throughout its two decades in the underground and five years in government, the NLD stuck to a winning platform. As a result, the outcast organisation has a strong and resilient apparatus and a culture of sacrifice allowing it to endure.
Philipp Annawitt was an advisor to Myanmar’s Parliament and government until February 2021.