Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Myanmar is ripe for third-party opposition

A third party in Myanmar would reduce the odds of a resurgent military in the post-Aung San Suu Kyi era.

Mandalay, Myanmar, April 2017 (Photo: Flickr/Matthew Slimmer)
Mandalay, Myanmar, April 2017 (Photo: Flickr/Matthew Slimmer)
Published 12 May 2017   Follow @nayyanoo13

Democracy returned to Myanmar with the 2010 national election after a half-century of military rule. While over 90 different parties had registered with the Union Election Commission, electoral politics has been dominated by two political parties: the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). It is the Generals vs 'the Lady.'

A new party is now being formed to challenge them. Leaders of the '88 Generation' student group that rose up in nationwide protests in 1988 (hence the name) announced that the new party will register later this year to run in the 2020 election. The 88 Generation is, after Aung San Suu Kyi, the best-known and most highly regarded pro-democracy group in Myanmar. The new party has raised more than MMK10,440,000 (or about $7700) in just two months through a simple Facebook page. A two-day conference was held in March 2017 to seek public input on the party's formation. About 500 people, including dozens of prominent scholars, civil society leaders, social activists, and political analysts, attended. 

The '88 Generation' student group and the NLD fought for democracy through decades of military rule. Student leaders were freed in 2012 after long prison sentences and teamed up with the NLD in 2014 to collect nearly 5 million signatures supporting changes to the 2008 constitution that was drafted by the military. Despite this collaboration, when the NLD began preparing for the 2015 election, it rejected candidacy applications from almost all senior members of the 88 Generation. One explanation offered was that long-time party members were chosen over newcomers. Another was that the NLD’s executive committee was powerless to influence the candidacy list nominated by local offices. But it is widely believed that Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD chair, did not want to include the 88 Generation because the student leaders would openly criticise her if she made policy errors.

As a result, the student group has decided to form its own political party. Leading members of the 88 Generation Ko Ko Gyi, Mya Aye, and Min Zeyar will guide the new party. Min Ko Naing, the most popular member of the group, and some of his associates, may not join the party because they want to focus on social issues under the banner of the '88 Generation Peace and Open Society', the group's nonprofit wing.   

Some analysts question the wisdom of a third party. They fear that pro-democracy votes would be split between the NLD and the emerging party. Neither party would receive enough votes to form a government, leading to a situation where the military-backed USDP, which is guaranteed 25% of parliamentary seats, would come back into power. 

But the 88 Generation group's decision to form a new party is the correct one. A third party is needed because voters are frustrated with the NLD's undemocratic nature of governing; the NLD-controlled parliament has become a rubber-stamp body; a third party could scrutinise the government and better check the balance between the three branches of the government.

More importantly, a third party would reduce the odds of a resurgent military in the post-Aung San Suu Kyi era. The NLD will likely face great internal disagreements once Aung San Suu Kyi steps down, with factions competing for party leadership. The military could take advantage of this situation to repress politicians, tighten its grip, and change the democratic political landscape. A third party would be much more capable of maintaining progress of the current democratic transition.

To build a true democratic party, the 88 Generation party should do three things.

First, the party must be based on a political ideology. More than 90 political parties exist in Myanmar, but few have strong political ideas. Even the NLD does not articulate its political ideology. The exceptions are the USDP and the National Development Party, chaired by a senior political adviser to former president Thein Sein. These two far-right parties clearly state that they are nationalist and will protect race and religion. The NLD remains safely inarticulate about the needs and rights of the people, and about promoting democratic values.

In this sterile political landscape, the country desperately needs another political force to pull society in a dynamic liberal direction. Therefore, the third party should push for liberal principles such as individual freedom, free markets, minority rights, environmental protection, freedom of speech, rule of law, and strong democratic institutions. Political, economic, and social policy should be developed based on liberal views.

Second, the new party should focus on the economy. Both the USDP and the NLD government paid attention to national reconciliation, with the peace process taking priority over all other matters. But achieving peace and reconciliation in short order is too ambitious and impractical. Various actors – the military, ethnic armed groups and bordering countries, China in particular – are involved in the peace process, and it will take time to build a lasting peace. The NLD government has been preoccupied with peace negotiations and has neglected economic development. Foreign direct investment dropped roughly 30% during the first year of the NLD administration. The economy is stagnating, and the country faces several macroeconomic challenges.

The third party should treat economic development as the most important issue. Creating jobs, raising incomes, and promoting growth need to be prioritised. Pragmatic economic policies should be developed. Once in parliament, the new party should work on repealing laws that discourage small and medium-sized business and foster a business-enabling environment.

Third, there is a need to strengthen democratic institutions. The USDP appeals to voters with authoritarian, nationalist and security-focused values. The NLD and the proposed third party of the 88 Generation would find support primarily from those voters who are inclined to aspire to liberal-democratic values.

Aung San Suu Kyi remains wildly popular, so the third party should not set an unrealistic goal of aiming for forming a new government. For now, it should consider simply being a strong opposition in the Union parliament to deepen democracy and fight for liberal values. The third party can check the power of the government through membership on parliamentary committees and commissions, and create alliances with ethnic parties, but not by running in ethnic constituencies. Instead, the new party should push for federalism and try to transform state and regional parliaments, which are traditionally weak, into more democratic and powerful institutions. Furthermore, by participating in all local elections, such as municipal boards, the third party can strengthen democracy at the grass-roots level.

Myanmar needs a third party to enhance economic reform and support Myanmar’s democratic transition. This emerging party should build a liberal platform, focusing on pursuing economic development and making institutions strong. The student leaders of the 88 Generation have been on a long and difficult journey. Many have sacrificed their lives to bring true, lasting democracy and prosperity to Myanmar in the hope that the fruits of their labours will result in a brighter future.

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