Myanmar: Elections Battle Between Ailing Democracy Icon and General Could Dominate Party Vote

For decades, Aung San Suu Kyi, the ailing democracy icon and founder of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy, has been a beacon of hope for the opposition in Myanmar.

But that hope may soon become a bitter reality.

The waning faith of her supporters in her ability to steer Myanmar towards democracy appears to be the cause of a rift that has split one of Myanmar’s oldest political parties into two.

In recent weeks, some members of the National League for Democracy, known as the NLD, have declared their intention to run against the party’s current president, in a move that could imperil the historic election victory the party enjoyed in 1990.

“The majority of the NLD has not gotten its act together and that’s why it got very close to going into a crisis,” said Myint Swe, a professor at Yangon University’s Institute of Politics.

Myanmar’s elections in November 2010 heralded the first time a military government had ever held an election in the country, and its victory kick-started the remarkable democratic process that has captivated the country’s eyes since.

But recent allegations of election-related violence have added fuel to protests against the Myanmar military regime.

Myanmar is deeply split along ethnic and political lines. In the 2011 elections, the NLD under Suu Kyi’s leadership won the majority of seats in the country’s parliament, but the military-dominated Parliament refused to yield.

The NLD was able to establish itself as a serious political force by protesting against the military government from 1988 to 1991 and holding peaceful demonstrations inside Myanmar for several years until the government began cracking down on their actions.

At least 43 people were killed in 1987 when NLD supporters tried to march to the Yangon University campus to protest. At the same time, thousands of people were arrested during other protests.

Opposition to the current ruling junta, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is led by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the army.

The organization is credited with abolishing Myanmar’s apartheid-like system, guaranteeing basic rights for its people and allowing reforms to move forward. It is the largest party in the Parliament and the former governing party.

However, due to the continued military involvement in the country’s government, peaceful protesters are discouraged.

“The government has tried to suffocate the civilian political opposition and that’s the reason why the NLD has lost a lot of its popularity,” Myint Swe said.

In June, rumors began to circulate that the NLD was dissolving after its popular senior deputy, U Tin Oo, announced plans to run against pro-military president U Thein Sein.

The decision came just before International Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi left for the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. However, she was unable to meet with her supporters at home due to restrictions on political gatherings.

Thinious Aung, an NLD lawmaker, announced that he would be running against his close ally in a special election for the Lower House.

“While the NLD is not going to disband immediately, if it goes ahead with an internal democracy contest, it may be the biggest setback for them,” he said.

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