Suu Kyi and old guard frustrate young Myanmar politicians

Supporters of the NLD party take part in an election campaign rally with a cut-out portrait of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Yangon, Oct. 25, 2020, ahead of next month’s elections. (AFP)
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Updated 28 October 2020

Suu Kyi and old guard frustrate young Myanmar politicians

  • Critics say the top echelons of the NLD remain closed to anyone who did not serve time behind bars in the fight against the former junta
  • The average age for the 12 members of the NLD’s top decision-making body, including party boss and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is more than 70

YANGON: Once celebrated as democracy champions, a tight elite of elderly former political prisoners at the helm of Myanmar’s ruling party now stand accused of oppression, discrimination and censorship.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) is widely expected to win next week’s election — five years after it swept to power in a landslide victory.
Throngs of young people signed up to the party when the Southeast Asian nation emerged from outright military rule, eager to play their role in cementing democracy.
But critics now say the top echelons of the NLD remain closed to anyone who did not serve time behind bars in the fight against the former junta — effectively sidelining the youth.
“We thought, proudly, we’d be future political leaders,” current NLD MP and former youth leader Aung Hlaing Win, now 37, told AFP.
“But, unfortunately, it went the wrong way.”
The average age for the 12 members of the NLD’s top decision-making body, including party boss and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is more than 70.
All of them were jailed or placed under house arrest for opposing the military regime.
Younger members of the party were largely reduced to supporting acts for their seniors, required to ask permission to speak to anyone outside the party and submit speeches for “censorship,” said Aung Hlaing Win.
“It turned out to be an oppressive system — no different from the system of military rule,” he added.
“Just because they’d been political prisoners didn’t mean they knew how to run a country.”
The hopes for change were dashed for many young democracy activists, who accuse the NLD of operating no better than other parties.
Political parties still ask new members about the role they played in the 1988 protests, complained 28-year-old activist Thinzar Shunlei Li, even though a majority of people in Myanmar were born in or after the 1980s.
“This is not the right way to judge a person,” she said. “Our issues, concerns and struggles are different.”
The NLD emerged from Myanmar’s 1988 pro-democracy movement as it fought against the junta.
This was when Suu Kyi — now 75 — was propelled to fame. She became a national hero, serving 15 years under house arrest, one of around 10,000 people imprisoned by the regime for their political beliefs.
But critics say incarceration has become an unwritten requirement for rising up in her party.
“People who served jail time longer are more important — that’s the philosophy of the NLD,” former NLD MP Thet Thet Khine told AFP.
The 53-year-old was kicked out last year for not toeing the NLD line, and now heads a rival party.
More than 120 current NLD ministers or MPs have served time in prison — from State Counsellor Suu Kyi and the president down.
A similar number of the party’s 2020 election candidates have also been jailed at some point.
“Doing time is a badge of honor,” explained Yangon-based analyst Richard Horsey, describing it as an “entry ticket to the upper echelons of the NLD.”
It is a policy the party makes no attempt to hide.
“When we consider giving responsibilities to someone, we favor our old comrades,” NLD spokesman and former ‘88 Generation activist Myo Nyunt told AFP.
“Older people have thicker skin, while newer members can be susceptible to criticism.”
Critics have also pointed to the NLD’s flipped role — a party led by victims of political repression that is cracking down on dissenters now that it is in power.
The number of activists incarcerated under Suu Kyi’s government has soared.
In recent weeks, 15 protesters have been arrested and two sentenced to six years behind bars for condemning alleged abuses by Myanmar’s military in Rakhine state.
Fortify Rights regional director Ismail Wolff described the crackdown on freedom of expression as “extreme and worsening.”
There are currently 537 political prisoners either already sentenced or awaiting trial, said Bo Kyi, co-founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
He also served time under the junta, and said he felt marginalized after his release because of the climate of fear.
But he conceded today’s young activists fare little better, faced with an unsympathetic public that unquestioningly supports Suu Kyi.
“Most people don’t want anyone to do anything against her.”


EU weighs options as Turkey stand-off grinds on

Updated 3 min 29 sec ago

EU weighs options as Turkey stand-off grinds on

BRUSSELS: European Council chief Charles Michel said Friday that Turkey has not de-escalated its stand-off with Greece and warned EU members now need to consider tougher options.
“I think that the cat and mouse game needs to end,” Michel said, referring to Turkey’s repeated incursions into Greek waters with gas exploration vessels.
“We will have a debate at the European summit on December 10 and we are ready to use the means at our disposal,” he added.
Next week’s EU summit will be held in Brussels with leaders meeting face-to-face after videoconferences were held as a coronavirus prevention measure.
One possibility, backed by some members, would be economic sanctions, but many states are not convinced.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told a conference in Italy “the EU Council will have to take the decision that only the EU can take, because the sanctions regime, it’s a matter for the member states.”
“There are not very many positive signals that came from Turkey during these months — in Cyprus and on the drilling, the talks between Greece and Turkey have not been developing,” he said.
Turkey has been challenging Greece over maritime territory in the Eastern Mediterranean, repeatedly sending a gas exploration vessel into Greek waters.
Both countries are NATO members and the alliance has set up a “de-confliction mechanism” to help avoid accidental military clashes.


But a German-led diplomatic approach to Ankara has made little progress in resolving the underlying issues, and some EU members — notably France and Greece itself — are pushing for stronger action.
Other EU capitals are more cautious, some fearing an escalating stand-off could see Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government once again allow a wave of refugees to head for EU borders.
Michel, who will host the summit, expressed Europe’s frustration.
“In October, after a very dense and strategic high level exchange, we defined a very positive offer to Turkey, we extended our hands,” he told a news conference to mark his first year in office.
“But the condition to move in that area is that Turkey needs to stop unilateral provocations, hostile statements, and the non-respect of international principles and rules-based society.
“Well, since October, things have not been very positive,” Michel noted.
“Since that time, we’ve seen that there have been unilateral acts that have taken place, a hostile rhetoric has been expressed.”
Backed by Turkish navy frigates, the research vessel the Oruc Reis was first deployed in August and again in October to the waters off Kastellorizo island, in defiance of EU and US calls to stop.
It returned to port again in October, but may go back to the disputed zone while Ankara says that, with its long Mediterranean coastline, its claim to sovereign waters in the region is stronger than Greece’s, which is based on its ownership of tiny Kastellorizo.