Democracy Lab

Cramming for That Next Big Test in Democracy

In Burma, members of the pro-democracy opposition are struggling to school themselves in the ins and outs of a liberal society. But so far it's an uphill battle.

RANGOON, Burma — In a musty room on the first floor of the YMCA in downtown Rangoon, potential future leaders of Burma are learning about Facebook. A PowerPoint presentation offers a potted biography of Mark Zuckerberg and explains what it means to "like" something. 

Listening intently are around 60 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma's leading opposition party, who are undergoing a crash course in politics and community mobilization. After half a century of military dictatorship and pervasive poverty, the teachers are starting from scratch: What is "civil society"? What is freedom of speech? What is an email address? 

"I've been a member of the NLD for 20 years but we've never had a chance to learn about real politics or have any training," said Naw Na Chatang, a 50-year-old farmer from the remote northern state of Kachin. Until recently, his life centered around growing lemons and rice on a hillside. Now he's just been elected to the Central Committee of the NLD, a posting confirmed at the first-ever party congress in March. He hopes to run for office in the country's next general election in 2015. 

It's been just two years since President Thein Sein, an ex-general who was part of the military junta that ran Burma for the five decades before that, decided to embark on a cautious program of liberalization. That opening included legalization of the NLD, a movement that bore the brunt of the old dictatorship's policies of oppression. Many leading NLD members served long terms in jail, where they were deprived of even the most basic information about the outside world -- not that their compatriots in the country at large were much better off. (The NLD's legendary leader Aung San Suu Kyi at least had the luxury of a shortwave radio during her long years of house arrest.) "You must remember the concept of democracy is quite new in Burma," says course instructor Min Yannaing Thein. "Most people have no experience of it." He, too, is a former political prisoner. 

The NLD faces a major challenge if it hopes to make the running two years hence. Over 1,300 seats will be up for grabs in the national election, spread across the upper and lower houses of parliament and regional assemblies. Yet the NLD, which has spent so many years struggling to keep itself alive, barely knows where to start. Last April, Aung San Suu Kyi led the party to an overwhelming victory in a limited round of parliamentary by-elections. The NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested. Yet a close advisor to the party privately admits that only a handful of their victorious candidates had the political knowledge and experience to do the job properly. The party faithful need training, and fast. 

The course is correspondingly basic. Spread across five days, it begins with a brief history of Burma and the fifty years of military rule. Then it moves on to descriptions of the country's political institutions, the role of the media, and such boring but vital issues as office administration and budget transparency. 

Many of the participants in this particular course come from remote, far-flung regions of the country that have been ravaged by decades of civil war. All suffer from the dilapidated education system and limited transport or communications infrastructure. The distance and cost of the bus ride make trips to Yangon a rarity. For some, it is the first time they have interacted with senior members of the NLD outside their region. The course participants hail from Chin, Shan, and Karen states, as well as Nagas from the country's far northwestern border with India. 

Their diversity vividly reflects the challenges that face Burma as it attempts to forge a democratic national identity after years of conflict fueled by a centralizing autocracy. One man from Shan state stands up to complain that the NLD lacks enough regional ethnic leaders and says there are too many Burmese representing his area. Another woman disagrees. As an ethnic Kachin living in the same state, she says, she doesn't want the local party dominated by the majority Shan. It comes as little surprise that many of the students are eager to learn more about the practice and theory of federalism from countries that have learned to balance central power and regional identities. Participants also want to hear advice on persuading China (Burma's other powerful neighbor) to help find solutions to the region's conflicts, or on negotiating a permanent peace with the military.

The course is offered by a group called Bayda, a local civil society organization initially set up by activists to monitor elections in 2010. Its conclusion at the time -- that the results were not even remotely free or fair -- was not welcomed by the authorities. The activists were kicked out of their offices four times in the first year. "We could never prove it was pressure from the police, but the landlords would beg us to move on," says Bayda member Min Yannaing Thein. One landlady was reduced to crying on her knees in front of him as she pleaded with him to leave, he says. 

Now allowed to work freely, Bayda organizers are planning to establish small libraries around the country that can act as hubs for regional courses as well as giving locals a place to use the Internet, read previously-censored history books, and hold political meetings. Already, 38 of these community centers have been set up in places as far-flung as Muse on the Chinese border and Dawei on the Bay of Bengal. Bayda hopes to have 100 in operation by the end of the year. 

A young team of workers is visiting these centers to deliver training for those who can't afford the trip to Yangon. Han Soe Tun, 31, has been with Bayda for only a couple of months, but has already traveled to six townships, staying in monasteries to keep down costs. "In rural areas, most people are still afraid to come to political training but there are always some activists who are hungry to learn." The police are curious but have so far left them alone. "We always ask the police to join in. They haven't taken up the offer yet." 

The plan is to use this network to find four or five promising individuals in each of Myanmar's 330 townships, who will then be brought to Yangon for an intensive, two-month course to prepare them to become election candidates. 

Meanwhile, at NLD headquarters in another part of town, another young activist has just set up the party's first research unit, which he hopes will provide the basis for party policy in the future. The founder of the department, Nay Chi Win, is also its oldest member at the ripe age of 32. Currently, it is no more than a small group of volunteers working out of Nay Chi's apartment and a small office in the ramshackle NLD building, poring over as much research material as they can find on transitional justice and the experiences of other fledgling democracies. 

They have built a loose network of around 30 other young activists from around the country who are collecting data on local conditions -- particularly agricultural and health needs, as well as the performance of government institutions. Nay Chi enlisted his friend, Benedict Rogers, a well-known activist from the U.K. who has written several books on Burma, to offer short training courses for his team and enlist other international teachers, including Australian economist Sean Turnell and former ambassadors from Britain and the Czech Republic. "I asked Ben to find people who want to help Burma and won't just come and ask for Aung San Suu Kyi's autograph," said Nay Chi. "I told him not to ask what we need -- we don't know. We just need help." 

The transition to open politics has been rough on the NLD in recent months, exposing it to the sort of criticism and infighting that it never faced during its years as the moral conscience of the country. Last month brought the unprecedented sight of huge protests directed against party leader Aung San Suu Kyi after a commission that she chaired refused to condemn a controversial copper mine project on the Chindwin River. 

Meanwhile, within the party, she faces complaints of being aloof and inaccessible. That is partly the result of her busy schedule and natural superiority -- she remains by far the most capable and charismatic politician in the country -- but several insiders also speak darkly about the small cabal of advisors that surround her, jealously guarding access and controlling the information she receives. They blame this group for some of her recent missteps, particularly her silence over the persecution of Rohingya Muslims and the ongoing war in Kachin state. "If she does not change this way of operating, it will be the death of her career and of the party," says one person with direct links to the highest levels of the NLD. Like others who raised these concerns, he spoke on condition of anonymity. 

But the emergence of new training and research programs -- thanks largely to the efforts of a new generation of energetic young activists, rather than party veterans -- offers hope of building a party that is more than simply a platform for its iconic leader. The scale of the challenge is daunting. Just two years ago, most of the NLD were underground, in prison or in exile. Now they have just two more to turn themselves into a government. 

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Hollow Victory

In the wake of Venezuela's contested election, will Nicolás Maduro bring the fractured country together or tear it apart?

LA VICTORIA, Venezuela — Marcos Oropeza is sure that Henrique Capriles Radonski won Sunday, April 14's presidential election; Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) says otherwise.

"The council allowed the government to steal the election," says Oropeza, 34, a heavy-equipment operator in the north-central state of Aragua. "They turned a blind eye to [acting President Nicolás] Maduro and his use of state funds during the campaign, and they turned a blind eye to the constant propaganda that flowed on the state television station. And now they say that Capriles lost? I have my doubts, and I am sure there are millions of people like me."

Maduro won the snap election -- called following the March 5 death of Hugo Chávez, who had himself won reelection over Capriles in October 2012 -- with 7.505 million votes, or 50.7 percent. Capriles, who polls had trailing far behind Maduro, racked up 7.270 million, or 49.1 percent, according to the CNE. But Capriles immediately called foul and said he wouldn't accept the results unless the agency undertook a full audit.

"We are not going to recognize the results until every vote is counted," said Capriles after the CNE released preliminary results. "The people's voice is sacred and needs to be respected. The people's will is everything."

At least one CNE board member, Vicente Díaz, also called for a full recount, citing irregularities during the vote ranging from intimidation to posting campaign posters too close to ballot sites. The unfolding impasse promises to plunge Venezuela into its worst political crisis since a 2004 recall vote against Chávez resulted in almost a yearlong governmental and economic paralysis.

"This is the worst possible political scenario," says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the Eurasia Group. "Maduro is facing doubts about his legitimacy and is going to face challenges from both within and outside his political base."

That's bad news for Venezuela, which is suffering through a grim economic malaise though it sits atop the world's largest oil reserves. Politically, the country is polarized into roughly two equal parts, each diametrically opposed to each other.

"I think Maduro won, but I can't be sure," says Jose Luis Tinaco, 38, a computer technician in Caracas who voted for Maduro. "I thought he would have won by hundreds of thousands of votes. Instead, he just managed to get by, and who knows what he did to win. I really wonder what is going to happen now."

Maduro's poor showing surprised many. At the start of the campaign, the mustachioed former bus driver was thought to be invincible. Not only did he have access to the government's financial resources, but he also had Chávez's political party mechanism firmly behind him.

Maduro, who had been named vice president shortly before his predecessor's death, also took pains to remind voters that the vote was a referendum on his former boss's legacy. He constantly called himself a "son of Chávez" and tried to imitate his predecessor at every opportunity. He adopted Chávez's folksy speaking style and often broke into song or dance at campaign rallies.

Unsurprisingly, most polls forecast that Maduro would win by between 5 and 15 percentage points. Maduro himself boasted that he would gain 10 million votes and smash Capriles in the process. But a series of missteps -- including the absurd claim that Chávez had appeared to him as a bird while he was praying -- marred his campaign.

"Maduro ran on emotion, and that was a mistake," says Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political analyst. "Capriles addressed the real problems of everyday life."

The country's worsening economic situation also played a huge role. After February's 33 percent devaluation of the bolívar, inflation -- already the highest in the region -- worsened. Shortages of basic foodstuffs such as cornmeal, sugar, coffee, cooking oil, and meat became severer.

"The bolívar isn't worth anything anymore," says Antonio Alvarez, 63, a farm laborer in the village of El Consejo, Aragua, who voted against Chavismo for the first time in 14 years. "I support my family back in Colombia, and the devaluation killed me. I can't buy anything with the bolívar now. And it's Maduro's fault."

Overall, there was a shift from the October presidential vote of about 4.5 percent of the voters to Capriles, estimates Mark Weisbrot, co-director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "Shortages, the devaluation, and inflation were all to blame," he says.

To ensure that the election would be held as close to within 30 days of Chávez's death, a stipulation mandated by the Venezuelan Constitution, the CNE dictated a short campaign of only 10 days. Critics charged that Maduro actually had been campaigning since December, as he had been one of the few people to know the gravity of Chávez's illness. "If the election had been held in June, Maduro would have lost," says Yorde.

Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, promised Sunday night to press the CNE to address more than 3,200 irregularities that his backers submitted during the vote. One video showed a red-shirted Maduro backer escorting voters to the polling booth, in clear violation of laws that say voters must have complete privacy while voting. More than 40 people -- from both parties -- were arrested for electoral offenses during the vote.

At a news conference Monday, Capriles asked the CNE not to proclaim Maduro the winner until a recount is done. He said he intendeds to deliver documents alleging violations Tuesday and called for a protest Monday at 8 p.m.

The CNE, which is theoretically independent but in practice very politicized, has been under constant attack since the 2004 referendum on Chávez. Capriles and his backers have charged the agency with bias and turning a blind eye to the government's alleged abuses, including the use of state funds to finance Maduro's campaign.

"The CNE director, Tibisay Lucena, made a huge mistake when she attended Chávez's funeral wearing a pro-government armband," says Yorde. "That only reinforced suspicions that the agency was biased."

Making matters worse was the revelation a few days before the vote that a Maduro supporter had the access code for all the country's voting machines. Speaking on behalf of the CNE, Lucena said that the supporter's possession of the codes wasn't a grave offense, further raising suspicions about her impartiality. Now, the agency will have to decide whether to audit all the ballot boxes, as Capriles has demanded, or just the 54 percent warranted by law. "I don't think the agency has the technical ability to audit all of the ballot boxes," says Yorde.

A full recount could take weeks.

And as the politicians dicker, Venezuelans will continue to suffer as the country's economic crisis worsens. Although poverty was reduced under Chávez, the economy has been hard hit by mismanagement, price and foreign exchange controls, and a plethora of subsidies, which have been fixed costs for the government.

"Maduro will be facing big economic challenges in six, seven months," says Yorde. "And he has two options: He can either opt to turn to the center, or he can become more radical."

If he adopts the former, he may run afoul of Chavistas who are loath to abandon any of the late president's policies. In that camp is the powerful finance and planning minister, Jorge Giordani, who is aligned with Elías Jaua, the foreign minister and former vice president.

The problem is that Maduro's slight margin of victory will hinder his ability to forge alliances necessary to take meaningful steps to address economic issues. Yorde said Maduro may try to bring some opposition parties, including Acción Democrática, a party Chávez particularly scorned, into his government.

Either way, Maduro will have his hands full, grappling with a country not only divided but in economic peril. And his tenuous legitimacy as the heir to Venezuela's outsized leader has many wondering whether he's the right man for the job. "Maduro is no Chávez," says Oropeza. "He should recognize that even with all of the state money he used for his campaign, he still couldn't win. He is a poor imitation of Chávez."

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Image