Suu Kyi and old guard frustrate young Myanmar politicians

YANGON (AFP) – 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 said 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.”

Supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party ride on wooden boats in Yangon river, during an election campaign rally on the outskirts of Yangon. PHOTO: AFP

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 is 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.