Mon, Feb 18, 2019 - Page 7 News List

New parties challenge Aung San Suu Kyi

By Thu Thu Aung  /  Reuters, YANGON, Myanmar

New political groups are emerging to contest Myanmar’s next election next year, aiming to challenge the hegemony of Burmese State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, after she has been weakened by escalating ethnic conflicts and slowing economic growth.

Those factors were blamed by party officials for the poor performance of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in by-elections in November last year, when it won only seven of the 13 seats up for grabs as regional and army-linked parties made gains.

“Now that ethnic parties have allied with one another and prepared, we can’t fully rely on the power of the party. We must try harder than before to win the trust of the people,” said Dashi La Seng, an NLD lawmaker from northern Kachin State, where the party lost a seat in November.

At stake is the future of Myanmar’s transition to democracy. The NLD swept to power in a landslide in 2015, winning a comfortable majority in parliament despite 25 percent of the seats being reserved for the army.

While the NLD is still expected to do better than other parties next year, its majority could suffer severe losses, analyst said.

“It’s questionable whether the NLD will win enough seats to form the government. If they don’t, they’ll have to form a coalition or negotiate with other parties,” said Ye Myo Hein, an analyst at the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies in Yangon.

Aung San Suu Kyi has responded to recent setbacks with a flurry of activity.

The Nobel laureate has faced criticism from ethnic leaders that her government is high-handed and lacks understanding of the political demands of the country’s myriad minorities, while investors have long complained about the slow pace of reform.

In the space of one week last month the Nobel laureate — often seen as aloof in style — popped in to a school in a Muslim neighborhood of Yangon and launched an investment conference touting the country’s plentiful resources and youthful population, while her party floated changes to the military-drafted constitution.

The burst of activity was interpreted as an attempt by Aung San Suu Kyi to more actively push the government’s message to constituents and investors. However, rivals have been busy, too.

Former junta No. 3 Shwe Mann, an influential former Burmese House of Representatives speaker who has been Aung San Suu Kyi’s ally, last week announced the formation of a new political force, the Union Betterment Party.

He was ousted as the head of the army-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party in 2015 and has surrounded himself with moderates from the previous regime.

Ko Ko Gyi, one of the legendary leaders of the student protests in 1988 against junta rule, has also started a party called the People’s Party. He has tempted other groups, including ethnic parties, to launch a joint bid for power.

“Even if one party can’t win, we can combine in parliament as an alliance. We can stand as one and avoid having our votes split,” Ko Ko Gyi said.

Nowhere are the headaches for the NLD bigger than in the western Rakhine State, where it is dealing with the fallout from an army offensive that in 2017 forced about 730,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh.

The EU is considering trade sanctions on the country over the crisis, potentially stripping it of tariff-free access to the world’s largest economy. The measures could target Myanmar’s lucrative textile industry and potentially put hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk — many in the areas that overwhelmingly voted NLD in 2015, such as Yangon and Mandalay.

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