About a week ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD) held its first national congress, a kind of meeting of all party activists from across Myanmar. In theory, many activists hoped the congress would work together to set a policy agenda—like a Democratic or Republican convention—that the party could use and build on for the planned 2015 national elections. In addition, many party activists believed, the NLD would broaden its senior leadership, currently centered around Aung San Suu Kyi, to include younger leaders.
As I have written several times before, one of the biggest challenges that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD face is that the president’s office (Thein Sein) and several affiliated think tanks have monopolized much of the best policy talent in the country. However, it’s pretty unlikely that Thein Sein’s party is going to win the 2015 elections, given the enormous popularity of the NLD, its long credentials in fighting the military, and the still strong appeal of Suu Kyi, despite some recent missteps by her. Yet at the same time, many NLD activists will not want to draw upon some of the talent used by Thein Sein, because of its links to the military. So the NLD needs to develop its own policy specialists, import more of them, or bring back more exiles with extensive policy knowledge.
At the congress, there was almost no discussion of policy. Zero. This was a huge mistake, according to many younger NLD activists, a point on which I completely agree. The lack of policy substance made the NLD seem like it was still only Suu Kyi’s party—that whatever she decides on economic, social, and constitutional policy in the run-up to the 2015 vote will simply be the NLD’s policy. It also made the congress seem like it had no interest in new blood in the NLD leadership.
Suu Kyi has drawn criticism on a lot of different fronts in recent weeks—her comments on her relationship with the military, her handling of the Letpadaung Inquiry Commission, and her too-quiet stance on violence in Kachin and Rakhine states. Some of this criticism is warranted; some is probably not, given that she has always spoken of her admiration for some in the military, even when she was under house arrest. But it is the lack of commitment to policy specifics, and to changing the NLD, that will be the most harmful in the long term.