Jeremy Mullins, Asia Insight, November 13
The final tally in Myanmar’s landmark elections is not due for
another week. Yet the opposition National League for Democracy
has pulled so far ahead that the focus has already shifted to
the dynamics between its leader, the hugely popular Aung San Suu
Kyi, and the military, which has ruled the country either
directly or indirectly for over half a century.
Early signs point to a peaceful transition. So far, both the
ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the military
have said they would come to terms with an NLD-led government,
an unthinkable scenario just five or six years ago.
Wednesday, Information Minister Ye Htut congratulated the NLD on
behalf of President Thein Sein through international media and
online statements. Ye Htut said the government wants a peaceful
transfer and would honor the election outcome. Commander in
chief Min Aung Hlaing also congratulated the NLD and said the
military would cooperate.
Suu Kyi and senior officials, including President Thein Sein,
have agreed to meet after the final poll results are announced.
The civility is a stark change from an earlier election in 1990
when the military annulled the results after the NLD handily won
the vote even though its leader Suu Kyi was under house arrest.
Many of her followers were imprisoned and Myanmar, ostracized by
the global community, languished for years under the weight of
international sanctions and domestic repression.
The transition began when a new crop of military leaders,
apparently tired of the country’s pariah status, launched a
remarkable shift toward democracy, starting with a new
constitution in 2008. The military-backed USDP has been in power
since an election in 2010, which the NDP boycotted.
“The former military regime has done what it can to catalyse
these changes and I see little reason that even hard-line
elements would want to stop the process now,” said Nicholas
Farrelly, director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the
Australian National University.
Although it may have lost the vote, the military will continue
to be a force. It will retain 25% of the seats in parliament, be
able to select one of the vice presidents as well as control
three important ministries – Defence, Home Affairs and Border
The military is also big business. Eric Rose, lead director of
Herzfeld Rubin Meyer & Rose Law Firm in Yangon, estimates the
military controls 50% of the economy, with the so-called
“cronies,” or tycoons heavily tied to the state, holding a
further 20% to 25%.
According to the 2008 constitution, Suu Kyi is barred from the
presidency due to her marriage to a deceased British citizen,
and her two children, who hold British passports.
While the new government won’t be finalized until April 1, Suu
Kyi has already given hints about her government. She has said
she will be “above the presidency,” which is at odds with the
role envisioned by the constitution, and is likely to irk the
Expectations are that she will install a loyalist in the
position and make the important decisions herself. Tin Oo, a
former defence minister turned NLD stalwart and a close
confident of Suu Kyi, is an early favourite for the role.
Outside of the posts reserved for the military, Suu Kyi will be
free to pick her own cabinet, though it remains unclear whether
she will reach out to the ethnic parties or the moderates in the
USDP in an effort to build a bigger tent and add much-needed
Beyond the handover, Suu Kyi faces many challenges ranging from
a military eager to preserve its turf to strained relations with
the country’s Muslim minority and ongoing rebellion in the
country’s north and east. Whether she can make the transition
from democracy champion to leader of a complex government
remains to be seen.
The election itself was described as “competitive and
meaningful” by the Carter Center, a U.S.-based non-profit
agency. While there were some concerns over suspicious advance
voting and names on voting lists, these appear to be localised
Myanmar’s citizens are still rubbing their eyes, though. Some 30
million of the 51-million population were eligible to vote on
November 8 and many woke up well before sunrise to queue for
Said Sann Oo, a well-known local journalist, who voted for the
NLD in Yangon’s Ahlone township: “The USDP and the military
have ruled for decades, but nothing good came of it for the
country. So I voted NLD as I want change. Even if the NLD cannot
bring good to the country, I want a say in choosing my own
The NLD needs a total 329 seats between the upper and lower
houses for a majority in the combined sessions of parliament to
choose the president and control the legislative agenda. By
Friday morning, the party was just two seats shy of that number,
leaving no doubt it would reach the target.
The NLD has swept nearly all the seats in the Burmese heartland
and outperformed ethnic parties in most of the ethnic areas. The
USDP has won a handful of seats, largely in areas wracked by
Muslim-Buddhist conflict and in some smaller and remote
constituencies. Significantly, it underperformed in rural areas
in which it considered itself strong, underlining the strength
of the push for change. Ethnic parties also performed more
poorly than some expected.
“I think it’s telling that in every quarter of Myanmar
candidates have accepted their loss and congratulated the
winners,” said Rose.
He said there are still several steps ahead in the democratic
process, including establishing the new parliament.
“We know that the people of Myanmar desperately want change,”
Rose said. “What we do not know is what change will be offered
them, and whether they will accept that change.”
It’s possible that Suu Kyi, or a post-election lame duck
parliament, could attempt to re-write the constitution. Previous
attempts to do this have failed due to the veto power held by
the military in parliament, and she would again face an uphill
A coup could also remain a low-level possibility for many years,
according to Farrelly.
With the apparent success of the election, attention has shifted
to the sanctions the U.S. maintains on some of the country’s
most prominent figures. Rose said these sanctions add extra
costs to international and domestic companies aiming to set up
in the country and keeping foreign business away due to
“Growth is around 8.5%, imagine what it could be without this
chilling effect,” he said.
According to media reports, President Barack Obama called Suu
Kyi and President Thein Sein on Thursday. He congratulated the
former on her party's success and the latter for holding “free
and fair” elections. Nevertheless, a decision to lift sanctions
may be some time away.
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