YANGON • Once celebrated as democracy champions, a tight elite of elderly former political prisoners at the helm of Myanmar's ruling party now stand accused of oppression, discrimination and censorship.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) is widely expected to win next week's election - five years after it swept to power in a landslide victory.
Throngs of young people signed up to the party when it emerged from military rule, eager to play their role in cementing democracy. But critics now say the top echelons of the NLD remain closed to anyone who did not serve time behind bars in the fight against the former junta - effectively sidelining the youth.
"We thought, proudly, we'd be future political leaders," current NLD MP and former youth leader Aung Hlaing Win, 37, said. "But, unfortunately, it went the wrong way."
The average age for the 12 members of the NLD's top decision-making body, including party boss and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is more than 70. All of them were jailed or placed under house arrest for opposing the military regime.
Younger members of the party were largely reduced to supporting acts, required to ask permission to speak to anyone outside the party and submit speeches for "censorship", said Mr Aung Hlaing Win.
"It turned out to be an oppressive system - no different from the system of military rule," he said. "Just because they'd been political prisoners didn't mean they knew how to run a country."
The hopes for change were dashed for many young democracy activists. Political parties still ask new members about the role they played in the 1988 protests, complained activist Thinzar Shunlei Li, 28, even though many of them were born in or after the 1980s.
"This is not the right way to judge a person," she said. "Our issues, concerns and struggles are different."
The NLD emerged from Myanmar's 1988 pro-democracy movement as it fought against the junta.
This was when Ms Suu Kyi - now 75 - became a national hero, serving 15 years under house arrest, one of about 10,000 people imprisoned for their political beliefs.
But critics say incarceration has become an unwritten requirement for rising up in her party.
"People who served jail time longer are more important - that's the philosophy of the NLD," said former NLD MP Thet Thet Khine, 53, who was kicked out last year for not toeing the NLD line and now heads a rival party.
More than 120 NLD ministers or MPs have served time in prison - from State Counsellor Suu Kyi and the president down. A similar number of the party's 2020 election candidates have also been jailed before.
"Doing time is a badge of honour," explained Yangon-based analyst Richard Horsey, describing it as an "entry ticket to the upper echelons of the NLD". It is a policy the party makes no attempt to hide.
"When we consider giving responsibilities to someone, we favour our old comrades," NLD spokesman and former '88 Generation activist Myo Nyunt said. "Older people have thicker skin, while newer members can be susceptible to criticism."
Critics have also pointed to the NLD's flipped role - a party led by victims of political repression that is cracking down on dissenters now that it is in power.
The number of activists incarcerated under Ms Suu Kyi's government has soared. In recent weeks, 15 protesters have been arrested and two jailed six years for condemning alleged abuses by Myanmar's military in Rakhine state.
Fortify Rights regional director Ismail Wolff described the crackdown on freedom of expression as "extreme and worsening".
There are 537 political prisoners either already sentenced or awaiting trial, said Mr Bo Kyi, co-founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Today's young activists are faced with an unsympathetic public that unquestioningly supports Ms Suu Kyi, he said.
"Most people don't want anyone to do anything against her."