Democracy on the rise in Burma

Kerry McCarthy

There can be few better ways of celebrating International Women’s Day than watching Aung San Suu Kyi address the first ever party conference of Burma’s National League for Democracy. The NLD was formed nearly 25 years ago, but has until now been banned from holding a conference, so this was an historic moment and it was a privilege to be there as, I think, the only Western politician to attend. It will, I hope, be followed by an even more momentous event. ASSK’s party is on course to win the General Election of 2015 and she will become Burma’s President 68 years after her father, the revered leader of the Burmese independence movement, was assassinated.

Democracy has been a long time coming in Burma. Almost everyone I spoke to at the conference had spent long periods in jail, including 32 year old rapper turned politician Zayer Thaw, who was elected to Parliament in the April 2012 by-elections (43 seats were up, the NLD won 42 – that’s a by-election record to be proud of!) and Zin Mar Aung, a female poet who spent 11 years in jail for writing poetry that was deemed by the regime to be subversive. I did meet a 91 year old, one of the party’s patrons, who had been involved for 70 years in Burmese politics without ever going to jail. He was too modest to say so but I gathered he was seen as a hero of the war of independence, which he fought alongside ASSK’s father Aung San, and that this had protected him from being arrested.

ASSK spoke twice from the platform. One speech was clearly aimed at the party, the other for a wider audience, but the theme was the same. We are not, she said, in politics for self-preferment or position. We are here to serve, and we expect no reward, no thanks or compliments for doing so. She told the audience that the party still had lessons to learn, and to do that they must be prepared to listen. The overall tone was one of humility and seriousness; there was no triumphalism, no attempt to rally the troops, no urging them to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government!” There was also very little applause and no standing ovations. The media was there, but this wasn’t a performance for them.

There was also no Burmese equivalent of Pete Willsman storming the stage to make a point of order. In fact the 899 delegates didn’t have much of a role at the conference at all, except to vote in the Central Committee elections, which took up most of the Saturday, and to rubber-stamp the election of ASSK as party chairman, her selection of 15 members to serve on her Central Executive Committee, and the approval of the draft manifesto. This is likely to change though, ASSK admitted in her speech that the party had been guilty in the past of being too centralised, too top-down, although this was due to the circumstances under which they had been forced to operate. Now they would become a genuine grassroots movement, with decisions coming from the bottom up, via the 120 strong Central Committee.

ASSK also stressed the importance of unity, and of diversity. Burma has of course been riven by ethnic conflicts, with the situation in Kachin and Rakhine states remaining especially troubled. She clearly envisions the NLD working closely with the small ethnic minority parties, but it has still not been decided whether they will offer a pre-election pact not to stand NLD candidates in areas where the minority parties would otherwise win. The NLD has taken steps to ensure fair representation for ethnic minorities within its  own ranks, which was apparent from looking at the assembled delegates and seeing the various forms of tribal dress. The draft manifesto also contains provisions to protect ethnic minority rights, languages and literature. But the statelessness and displacement of the Rohingyas – an issue which concerns many in the UK – was not specifically addressed as far as I could tell. (I was of course relying on a translator.)

I also got to see the backstage scenes of the ballot for places on the Central Committee, which was remarkably similar to watching the Conference Arrangements Committee staff at work behind the scenes at Labour conference – including the photocopier repeatedly jamming as they tried to print the ballot papers.

On the second day a member of the Central Executive Committee gave a presentation on the draft manifesto, which will be reviewed twice a year by the 120 strong Central Committee – a bit, I suppose, like the role played by Labour’s National Policy Forum. The 2012 by-elections were fought on three main issues: upholding the rule of law, changing the constitution, and ending ethnic conflicts. The draft manifesto now includes: support for a free market economy; a commitment to spend more on health and education; equal pay and adherence to ILO standards; a page on protecting the environment; and much more. Burma’s trade unions – which are only now emerging from years of repression, with many members being jailed for trade union activities –  have no formal connection with the NLD and it will be interesting to see how the relationship develops.

Perhaps the one disappointing element of the conference was the under-representation of women. There were only 99 women amongst the 899 conference delegates; they have less than a fifth of the places on the Central Committee; and they have 4 of the 15 places on the NLD’s most senior body, the CEC. The age profile for both male and female delegates is also clearly weighted towards the older generation, but this will no doubt change over time, and it will be interesting to see what steps ASSK takes to bring on the new generation as the party nears power.

I’d met ASSK last year at her home in Napidaw where the Burmese parliament sits, and had the chance to talk to her again at the conference. What impresses most is her quiet determination, her absolute commitment to her cause, of bringing democracy to Burma. There is no grandstanding, no ego, just a very firm resolve. It was a privilege to attend the conference and to see the NLD on the cusp of achieving political power. I hope that we in the Labour Party can continue to support them in their endeavours.

Kerry McCarthy MP is the Labour MP for Bristol East, and a Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs

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