Two years after taking office, the graying leadership of Myanmar’s ruling party lacks a new generation to inherit power, risking the pro-democracy camp’s ability to check the power of its military rivals.
Over the past two weeks, Myanmar’s 71-year-old president resigned, citing a desire for rest; Aung San Suu Kyi, 72, the country’s pre-eminent civilian leader, canceled a speaking engagement, citing ill health; and the Nobel prize winner’s party was forced to address swirling rumors she may soon retire.
Win Myint, a 66-year-old Suu Kyi loyalist was picked Wednesday as the new president—effectively a ceremonial role. Two-thirds of the ruling National League for Democracy’s elite Central Executive Committee is over the age of 65—the male life expectancy in Myanmar—according to party data.
Many experts say the party, which won Myanmar’s first relatively free and fair elections since the military took power in 1962, risks losing its struggle with the institution if it fails to groom a new generation of leaders. The military retains control of key government ministries and a quarter of seats in parliament.
“It is a serious problem for Myanmar, for the NLD, and for Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Aaron Connelly, research fellow in the East Asia program at the Lowy Institute, on the lack of a new crop of leadership talent. “The leadership of those around her, who refuse to tell her hard truths, has been wanting.”
Since last year, the military has asserted itself through a violent campaign against Myanmar’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority, who are broadly despised in Myanmar. The NLD has been forced into a difficult position of having to either publicly support the military crackdown, and risk international censure, or defend the unpopular Rohingya.
The NLD came into power with hopes of reforming the economy and education system, and even amending the constitution to curb the military’s power. But critics charge that Ms. Suu Kyi and the party have failed to deliver on their promises, in part due to a highly centralized leadership style that places all decisions in the hands of the Nobel laureate and her aging coterie of confidants.
The NLD’s elderly leadership is viewed by some as a symptom of a larger issue: Party leaders are chosen based largely on their loyalty to Ms. Suu Kyi, and often kept on past their prime.
On Sunday, Win Htein, 76 years old, a central executive committee member and former Suu Kyi aide, returned to Myanmar from a vacation in Australia to announce that Ms. Suu Kyi had rejected his offer of resignation. Mr. Win Htein, a former political prisoner with chronic heart problems who sleeps plugged into an oxygen tank, told local media that he had wanted to resign because of all the thorny assignments he faced as NLD leader.
In a recent shuffling, Zaw Myint Maung, 66, a Suu Kyi loyalist who serves as chief minister of the Mandalay region, as well as in a regional legislature, was formally made one of the national party’s chief spokespeople.
“The NLD at present seem to be recycling the same top leaders,” said Soe Myint Aung, founder of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, a policy research institute in Yangon.
Aung Shin, an NLD spokesman, dismissed that analysis, saying the party selects leaders for traits other than personal loyalty to Ms. Suu Kyi, such as professional skills and language ability. He said the party is actively cultivating younger leaders by holding youth congresses.
Though the NLD has a youth wing, rising through the ranks is a slow process, leading ambitious younger Burmese to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Ms. Suu Kyi signaled her aversion to granting power to potential rivals ahead of the 2015 election, political analysts say, when she refused to allow prominent civil-society leaders who led street protests against military rule in 1988 to run for parliament as NLD cadres.
But her apparent preference for loyalists has its defenders. Naing Ko Ko, a political analyst who consults with the NLD, said Ms. Suu Kyi’s closed leadership style reflects the NLD’s challenge of facing off against an obdurate military that maintains control of key levers of power. “Our opponent is quite strong and dares to shoot on the spot,” he said of the military. “So we have to focus on the leadership core.”
While Ms. Suu Kyi’s centralization of power may parallel the military’s, the army seems to be more effective at cultivating a next generation of leaders. Min Aung Hlaing, 61, commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, is a decade younger than Ms. Suu Kyi. His battlefield exploits in 2009 led to a series of rapid promotions.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s sickness raises questions about her possible successor as top civilian leader. Her two sons are British citizens and constitutionally barred from attaining government posts.
“Despite the aging NLD leadership, there’s no comprehensive or clear agenda for the Lady’s successor,” said Elliot Brennan, a nonresident research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Sweden, referring to Ms. Suu Kyi. “While her president may be replaceable, she’s just not.”
Write to Jon Emont at email@example.com
Appeared in the March 29, 2018, print edition as ‘Myanmar Struggles to Groom New Leaders.’