The Debate | Opinion | Southeast Asia

The Coup in Myanmar: Where is the NLD?

The most domestically popular party in the world needs to find new leaders to unify and guide the resistance to the coup in Myanmar.

The Coup in Myanmar: Where is the NLD?
Credit: Flickr/Baron Reznik

Ten days after the “soft” coup in which Myanmar’s military toppled the civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), resistance is building: Mass demonstrations have spread to most major cities in the ethnic-majority Bamar heartland of Myanmar and even some “ethnic” states in Myanmar’s border regions. Staff of at least six civilian ministries have now downed tools in protest and joined the Civil Disobedience Movement. Buddhist monks as well as Christian and Muslim religious associations have also joined protests in Yangon, Mandalay, and other cities. The junta is responding to the mounting street protest with cautious escalation. On February 9, the coup claimed its first victims with two protestors in critical condition after suffering gunshot wounds.

The junta is reluctant to launch an all-out escalation because it is weak: afraid of the economic fallout on the one hand and unsure of the loyalties of its own military and police forces on the other. Powerful images have reached us from Myanmar of policemen going over to join the protestors. They dynamic is still shifting away from the generals. As a result, there is still a window of opportunity to force the junta to the negotiating table.

All of which begs one question: Where is the NLD? On February 1, the very day the 3rd Union Parliament was to constitute itself, the ruling party was decapitated by the coup. President Win Myint and de facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi were arrested, as were cabinet members, members of parliament, chief ministers of Myanmar’s 14 States and Regions, and members of of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee. It is ironic that the NLD, one of the most domestically popular parties in the world was so easy to cripple. The party’s top-down organizational structure made it vulnerable to the coup. The NLD had also deprived itself of many experienced politicians when, before the November 2020 elections, it substituted a large number of its more “unruly” MPs with neophyte politicians.

The NLD has been careful to fight this coup within the framework of the 2008 Constitution, which gives the military a prominent place in the running of the country. The party has lodged a complaint in Myanmar’s judiciary, which remains pending. The coup leaders had given the NLD a golden opportunity: All new NLD MPs who had not yet been sworn in, were set free and asked to go home on February 2. Last week a group of MPs elected to the Union and the Sagaing Region parliaments formed executive committees for their respective parliaments and issued announcements that they do not recognize the junta government. They held constitutive parliamentary sessions virtually. Other regional parliaments will likely follow suit in the coming days. Crucially, though, at these constitutive sessions the parliaments did not elect speakers, presumably because they are waiting for instructions from the reeling party leadership on how to proceed further, which they can ill afford. The expanding civil disobedience movement needs leadership. The international community needs representatives it can engage with. Crucially the NLD needs to start engaging with the junta in order to negotiate an end to the coup before it turns increasingly violent.

An NLD leader elected national speaker of the virtual Union Parliament would have the legitimacy conferred by the office, could easily make contact with diplomatic missions in Myanmar, coordinate and advocate for continued pressure on the junta. The speaker would also reach out to engage with the media and with key mobilizers in the disparate civil disobedience movement, influence messaging, and establish a sense of strategic direction for the days to come.

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Crucially, once the new cyber security law the junta has floated is implemented, and social media are neutralized, coordination and mobilization among the resistance will have to move offline. Mobilization will then have to be performed by existing political networks and the NLD has the biggest grassroots organization in the country. The third Pyidaungsu Hluttaw will have to act quickly as the junta is doubling down on arrests of the existing NLD leadership.

An important priority for the NLD in the days to come will be to repair relations with the ethnic parties and ethnic armed groups representing Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and mobilize them for the resistance. Myanmar is a very diverse country in which around a third of the population belongs to ethnic minority groups, mostly living in the “ethnic” states bordering India, Thailand, China, and Laos. Myanmar is also plagued by more than a dozen mostly dormant armed insurgencies fought by so-called ethnic armed groups against the military, all of which remain unresolved. For many minority ethnic people, the coup is an inter-Burman affair in which they are wary of picking a side.

Few may remember it, but the NLD was once the leader of a multi-ethnic coalition of democratic parties with members of most of Myanmar’s many ethnicities. The biggest Shan ethnic party is not called the “Shan National League for Democracy” for no reason. In the wake of the 2015 election, the NLD declined to form the usual electoral alliances and ran their own “ethnic” candidates against the ethnic parties. The resulting victory marginalized ethnic parties and gave the NLD few incentives to engage with them. Similarly, many ethnic armed groups have complained that the NLD has been uninterested in driving forward the peace process that was initiated by the then military-led government in 2011. The NLD government’s signature 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference was big on ceremony and short on actual process, not to speak of results. Many ethnic armed organizations feel that the going with the old military-aligned government under General Thein Sein was better.

Now the junta is trying to bring ethnic parties and ethnic armed organizations over to their side – with some success. The Karen National Union, one of the most powerful ethnic armed groups, initially condemned the coup. Later it agreed to hold talks with the military. The Arakan National Party (ANP), the biggest ethnic Rakhine party, which won the most seats in the Rakhine State Parliament, has bemoaned the fact that the NLD has not reached out to it since the November election. Now the ANP is giving in to the overtures of the junta, taking up the latter’s invitation to put a top leader on the State Administrative Council, the new military-led government in Rakhine State.

If the NLD leadership reached out to the ethnic parties and ethnic armed organizations perhaps it could revitalize the old democratic coalition. The NLD has some aces up their sleeve. Their promise to allow Myanmar’s ethnic states to have their own constitutions is understandably wildly popular with minority ethnic communities and their representatives. It points to the further decentralization of state-level service provision, expanded state-level resource governance, and goes well beyond anything the junta will be willing to give away. In addition, further concessions could be promised, and most importantly a peace process that deserves the name.

If the NLD takes decisive action now, it may still be able to end the coup without a long and bloody confrontation. A new parliamentary leader could also herald the generational change that is overdue in the NLD. Ethnic parties and ethnic armed groups in particular will appreciate having some new faces around.

Philipp Annawitt worked for the UN Development Programme in Myanmar from 2015-2020. He now advises Myanmar’s Ministry of Planning and Finance.