Myanmar emerges from the ravages of military rule to celebrate democracy

Pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi hailed a “new era” for Myanmar after her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide victory in the April 1 parliamentary by-elections.

Myanmar’s election commission confirmed on April 2 that Suu Kyi’s NLD won 40 out of the 45 seats contested, with five yet to be called.

Speaking to a crowd of delirious supporters at the NLD headquarters in Yangon, the 66-year-old Nobel laureate called the victory a “triumph of the people, who have decided that they must be involved in the political process of this country”.

The NLD claimed that Suu Kyi won over 85% of the vote in Kawhmu, a region that was ravaged by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. She received 55,902 votes, compared to 9,172 polled by her nearest rival Soe Min, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) candidate.

Tin Yi of the Unity and Peace Party (UPP), the third candidate in the fray, received 397 votes, according to the NLD.

Seventeen political parties and 157 candidates, including independents, contested the polls spread across nine states.

Myanmar’s parliament has a total of 662 representatives and the military-backed USDP would control 80% of the seats even after the recent results. The country’s constitution reserves a quarter of the parliamentary seats for the military.

“What is important is not how many seats we have won, although of course we are extremely gratified that we have won so many, but the fact that the people are so enthusiastic about participating in the democratic process,” Suu Kyi told supporters at NLD headquarters on Monday.
“We hope that this will be the beginning of a new era.”

Election irregularities

In the run-up to the elections, the NLD complained of intimidation of its candidates by supporters of the ruling party. Suu Kyi said the poll could not be considered “a genuinely free and fair election”.

Concurrent with the NLD claims, sections of the Myanmar media on polling day reported instances of exclusion of eligible voters from voter lists and the inclusion of children and dead people in the official register.

Other serious allegations revolved around pouring of wax on the NLD portion of ballot papers, thereby leading to votes by NLD supporters becoming invalid.

The direction of the election commission, Win Ko, told Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar service on April 2 that anyone found guilty of fraud would face the punishment of a year in prison — provided proper evidence was uncovered. But he believed that the possibility of massive electoral fraud remained unlikely.

Many independent foreign observers agreed. Malgorzata Wasilewska, a European Union election observer, said that the election process at the roughly dozen polling stations her team visited was “convincing enough”.

Experts suggest that large-scale malpractices could not have been possible as Myanmar President Thein Sein was personally committed to the effectiveness of the by-elections.

“Allowing foreign observers to monitor the by-elections was a part of the Myanmar government’s efforts to show that it was willing to be open and also play fair,” Kyaw San Wai, research analyst at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), told Asia360 News.

One of the main reasons for the ruling USDP to stay clear of deliberate foul-play is that the quasi-civilian government that took power in 2010 needs Suu Kyi to enter the parliament to bolster the government’s legitimacy and spur an easing of western economic sanctions.

Lifting of sanctions?

As soon as the results were announced, President Thein Sein’s chief adviser told The Washington Post newspaper that the elections proved his country is capable of holding fair elections and that it is time for the US government to lift its economic sanctions on the country.

Reacting somewhat favourably to the plea, the same newspaper reported an unnamed senior US administration official as saying that “there are tangible moments that demand a tangible response to support ongoing reform”.

Observers suggest the possibilities include a lifting of travel bans to the US against Myanmar officials; the nomination, at long last, of a US ambassador to Myanmar; the lifting of some minor sanctions by presidential order; and even some military exchanges. Leaders at the ASEAN summit in Cambodia also reacted favourably to the election process and called for the lifting of international sanctions. No official announcement was made however on the issue.

“If it goes well [after the elections], it will probably lead to further engagement [of Myanmar] with outside nations, particularly the West,” Joshua Kurlantzick, Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), told Asia360 News.

A complete lifting of western sanctions is not expected until the authorities release all political prisoners and address the ethnic violence insurgencies that have for decades caused insurgent conflicts against the central government.

Myanmar has surprised its critics over the past year with a string of reforms such as the release of hundreds of political prisoners. But ethnic conflicts and alleged rights abuses remain concerns for the West.

The future

As a lawmaker and opposition leader in parliament, Suu Kyi would have an unprecedented voice in the legislative process. But with less than 10% of seats in parliament, her party would hardly be in a position to bring about the constitutional changes she seeks.

“We now need to see how Suu Kyi functions as a parliamentarian, as many people expect her to work miracles overnight. The transition from activist to parliamentarian has its set of challenges. If the NLD works adroitly and reaches out to the other parties, and also the military, it will be able to hit way above its weight at the parliament,” said Kyaw of Singapore’s RSIS.

To achieve that, however, Suu Kyi will need to influence not just those parliamentarians in the opposition that participated in the 2008 elections that the NLD had boycotted, but also those belonging to the ruling USDP. That would mean that she would have to work with the military in some way.

Despite fears that Suu Kyi risks legitimising a regime she has opposed for decades, NLD supporters see Suu Kyi’s presence in the parliament as the best chance in many decades for the country to take a turn for the good.

“Suu Kyi’s entry into the parliament would strengthen the democratic change within and outside parliament. It would benefit from the current climate of change in the country in its bid to bring about irreversible systemic reforms,” Soe Myrint, senior journalist and a prominent Myanmarese voice, told Asia360 News.

But experts warn that those are complicated matters that will require time to resolve.

“The real danger of the by-elections is the overblown expectations many in the west have cast on them,” David Scott Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch, told Associated Press news agency on April 2.

“The hard work really does start afterward […] constitutional reform, legal reform, tackling systemic corruption, sustainable economic development, continued human rights challenges […] will take many years,” he said.

For the moment, most people in Myanmar are celebrating a victory that marks a major milestone in the Southeast Asian nation ravaged by decades of ruthless military rule.

The joy is even greater for the triumph of a woman who became the world’s most prominent prisoner of conscience.   AR


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