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. Continue reading Burmese general election could mark shift from military rule