Five years ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar’s chief opposition party, boycotted the 2010 parliamentary elections because the party’s leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was barred from the presidency under a 2008 constitution amendment preventing anyone with a foreign spouse or children to run for president, and it was clear enough to anyone paying attention that the new rules were designed to keep Suu Kyi out of the presidency.
But shortly after that election, however, the ruling military junta released Suu Kyi from the house arrest under which she had been subject for more than 15 of the prior 20 years.
It was a sign of good things to come for Burmese advocates of democracy and liberalization.
On the cusp of the country’s elections on Sunday, touted as the most free and fair set of elections in a quarter-century, Suu Kyi appears to be on the cusp of leading the pro-democracy NLD to its greatest triumph yet — potentially remaking, rebranding and reforming her country in the 21st century.
From dictatorship to open elections
Shortly after the last elections, Thein Sein was sworn in as president in 2011. His government launched a tentative push for reform, freeing of many of the country’s political prisoners and introducing legally recognized labor unions. In the April 2012 by-elections, the NPD was not only permitted to campaign openly, but it won 43 of the 46 seats up for election. Later in 2012, Thein Stein appointed Aung Kyi, a leading negotiator between the government and the opposition camps, as his new information minister.
The United States took notice, engaging the new reform-minded Burmese regime and even lifting many of US government sanctions, so as to permit greater bilateral trade. By the end of 2013, US president Barack Obama had visited Myanmar, and Thein Sein had visited Washington in return, winning additional relief from US sanctions, despite ongoing concerns about treatment of the Rohingya minority — practicing Muslims who represent around 4% of the country’s 51.5 million population, mostly located in the far west of Myanmar.
Still, it’s no exaggeration to say that US outreach to Burmese officials in favor of modernization and liberalization might be the most important and well-deserved (though certainly unexpected) legacy of Hillary Clinton’s four years as US secretary of state.
Nevertheless, impatience with the glacial pace of reforms and lingering dissatisfaction with Burma’s economy explain why the NLD is such a strong favorite to win the November 8 elections.
It’s not the first time Burmese citizens have demonstrated their yearning for change. In the 1990 election, the NLD also won an overwhelming victory, only to watch as the country’s military installed an even more autocratic dictatorship, promptly placing NLD leaders, including Suu Kyi, in prison or under house arrest. Seventeen years later, between August and October 2007, Buddhist monks led a series of protests in what Western media christened the ‘Saffron revolution,’ attacking the rising cost of living and the sudden removal of Myanmar’s longtime petrol subsidy, which drastically increased fuel costs.
As world elections go, however, Sunday’s will be one of the oddest.
If Suu Kyi and the NLD score a clear win, no one really knows what might come next. A gracious concession and a transition toward a fully democratic Myanmar is possible. But so is a hardline crackdown by the country’s powerful military. Violence isn’t out of the question.
Nominally, it’s a parliamentary election like you might expect in any emerging democracy. Voters will choose the members of both houses of the legislature — the 440-seat Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives) and the 224-seat Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities). In each house, however, 25% of the seats (110 of the lower house and 56 of the upper house) are reserved for the military, a legacy that follows from the fact that the armed forces have ruled the country since 1962. The ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), currently controls both houses, in tandem with the military. In contrast, the NLD currently holds just 38 seats in the Pyithu Hluttaw — not even 10%.
The implication is obvious.
Suu Kyi’s opposition must win 51% of the seats in both houses of the Burmese assembly to have even a chance of really grasping power. By contrast, with just 26% of the seats, the ruling USDP could team up with the military to retain power.
Envisioning a NLD-led government in Myanmar
Analysts caution, with good reason, that the military will continue to hold the real power in Burma. Many of the most powerful ministries (including internal affairs, border security and defense) will remain in military hands. Moreover, it’s not an everyday occurrence for an entrenched elite of over a half-century to cede power voluntarily. Besides, if the NLD wins, it will have to leave behind the lofty position of besainted opposition and take up the more benighted work of co-existing in a Burmese political regime where the military will continue to wield significant power — and share part of the responsibility for governing.
To some degree, Suu Kyi already crossed this particular Burmese Rubicon upon her election to the parliament in 2012. What was once a fawning international press has now chided her silence on the rights of the Rohingya minority. Critics argue that the Muslim minority has been disenfranchised, even while both the government and Suu Kyi are heralding historically open elections, including U Shwe Maung, a sitting member of the country’s parliament who was barred from running for reelection:
As a current member of Myanmar’s Parliament, I was planning to run for re-election as an independent candidate. But when I went to file my paperwork with the local election commission in August, I was told I was not eligible, ostensibly because my parents were not citizens of Myanmar at the time of my birth. The claim is laughable. Both my parents held valid proof of Myanmar citizenship when I was born. My father was a prominent police officer. And I was elected to Parliament in 2010 under the same eligibility rules. I challenged the decision to disqualify me, but was not allowed to defend myself at a hearing before the Rakhine State Election Commission.
I wish I could say I am an exception. But Rohingya, along with most other Muslims in Myanmar — who together make up at least 4 percent of the population — are being deliberately targeted for exclusion. Neither I nor the other two Rohingya lawmakers currently in Parliament will be back when the new assembly convenes in January. Only a handful of Muslims nationwide even have the chance to compete, after the election authorities disqualified dozens of Muslim candidates.
For a woman, now aged 70, who wants to take power in her own right, her silence has been a political advantage in a country where many Rohingya are considered ‘Bengali’ and have a legal status no better than migrants, despite the fact that many have lived in Myanmar for generations. The NLD is fielding no Muslim candidates, and Suu Kyi has been focused on bluntinf the influence of the hardline Ma Ba Tha, or the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, a new nationalist movement founded in 2014 among the sanha community of Buddhist monks, who have attacked the NLD as the party of Muslims. Though Ma Ba Tha has essentially endorsed a vote for the governing USDP, that position has divided the movement, which has emerged more from Burmese religious and civil society than from the machinations of government plotting.
It’s not hard to imagine that, in a post-junta world, the military’s power will gradually recede, the governing party will implode, and Burmese politics will become a fight between the secular, left-leaning NLD and the religious conservative Ma Ba Tha movement — not quite unlike the national struggle between secular liberals and Hindu nationalists in India. In that regard, the fight between Su Kyi’s supporters and the Ma Ba Tha could presage the country’s future.
Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, one of the country’s pro-independence founding fathers and the founder of Burma’s communist party, though he was killed by an assassin six months before Burma won full independence. Due to her late husband’s British nationality and the dual citizenship of her two sons, Article 59 of the current constitution prevents Suu Kyi’s elevation to the presidency. The NLD’s attempts to roll back the constitutional impediment have repeatedly been defeated, even in the post-2011 era of reform. With a supermajority, however, the NLD might be able to push those changes through the Burmese legislature, but that would still require Myanmar’s powerful generals to assent.
No matter. Suu Kyi has made it clear that she would call the shots in the event of an NLD win and that she would serve ‘above the president.’
Even so, no one know for sure exactly how Suu Kyi would perform in power. Everyone expects that she would be more Mandela than Mugabe. But that’s not certain, especially in light of her expedient reluctance to come to the defense of the country’s Rohingya minority. There’s also quiet grumbling that Suu Kyi has dominated the party leadership for nearly three decades with something of an autocratic bent of her own. Filial ties to a founding father is no guarantee of benevolent good government — former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s first post-independence leader Sukarno is proof enough of that.
But if the NLD wins an overwhelming victory, it will be in a position to appoint Myanmar’s next president. That outcome is not out of the question. In 1990, it won over 50% of the vote and 392 out of 492 potential seats in the Burmese parliament at the time, and in the 2012 by-elections, the NLD was even stronger, winning around 66% of the vote. Though the country is nearly 90% Buddhist, it’s also a country of many dozens of ethnic groups, the most dominant of which is the Bamar, accounting for around 68% of the total population and clustered in the south-central heartland. The NLD’s chances seem strongest among the Bamar electorate — if it sweeps the Bamar electorate, and if the elections are reasonably free, Suu Kyi will be well on her way to a parliamentary majority.
So what of the ruling party?
It’s possible that it has more staying power than Suu Kyi’s foreign fans would like to admit. The economy is modernizing and, of course, Myanmar is much more politically open than it was eight years ago during the monk-led protests. But if, through fraud or through genuine support, it managed to prevent the NLD from winning a majority, the 70-year-old Thein Sein might be expected to stay on for at least a little while longer.
If reelected to a second term, it’s hard to know whether Thein Sein will necessarily push forward with reform, the pace of which has slowed since 2011 and 2012. While he removed Kyaw Hsan, the former information minister, and other hardliners from his cabinet in 2012, he also removed Shwe Mann, a reformer and former general, from his position as party chief earlier this year in August.
If Thein Sein doesn’t make a bid for a second term, Min Aung Hlaing, the current commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, seems well placed to step up. Than Shwe, the dictatorial senior general who led Burma from 1992 until 2011 as the head of the ‘State Peace and Development Council,’ neither particularly peaceful or development-minded in its rule, is now retired at age 82, but he continues to wield significant influence behind the scenes, especially among military hardliners.
Making up for wasted time
When it won independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, Burma was one of the wealthiest countries in Asia. At independence, Burma had been separated as a discrete crown colony apart from India only for 11 years, and three of those years (1942-45) were spent occupation by imperial Japan. When Burma’s military took charge in 1962, it introduced a statist program, the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism,’ which nationalized the country’s economy and increasingly impoverished the country for the next quarter-century, emerging from near-absolute autarchy only in the late 1980s. But economic reform only fully became a priority with Thein Sein’s government, which relaxed restrictions of foreign investment and attempted to fix the country’s currency, taxation and corruption difficulties.
Today, however, its nGDP per capita of just under $1,300 remains lower than either India’s or Pakistan’s per-capita GDP. Burma was renamed Myanmar by the military government in 1989 in a burst of post-colonial sentiment, just as the country’s largest city, Rangoon, was renamed Yangon, and abandoned as the national capital in 2005 for the newly-built Naypyidaw, far to Yangon’s north. But the country was not always so isolated; Burmese national U Thant served from 1961 to 1971 as the third secretary-general of the United Nations.