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.
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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.