NLD sweep in Myanmar signals democracy for Bamars and subjugation of minorities
Millions of Myanmar voters went to the polls over a week ago to voice their overwhelming support for democracy and opposition to the military’s involvement in politics. Throughout the country, people queued patiently and peacefully – sometimes for up to two hours in the hot sun – to mark their ballot papers.
The outcome was predictable: the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) led by their iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was returned to power, with an even greater majority in parliament than what it got five years ago in a landslide. While a handful of ethnic political parties did win seats, it was not as many as was expected.
While it was a whole-hearted endorsement of the ruling party, it was also a deafening appeal to the country’s political leaders not to backtrack on the country’s democratic transition, to further strengthen political and economic reforms and to adopt more inclusive policies. It was a call to ensure economic reform and development.
The one issue which did not feature in the election was the persecution of the Rohingyas in the Rakhine province. Myanmar’s civilian leader has fallen from grace internationally, being heavily criticized for the country’s persecution of its minority Muslim Rohingya community, and her apparent complicity in allowing the military to run amok in Rakhine. The military forced more than a million Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh where they are languishing in refugee camps for the past two years. But this did not affect her standing at home. If anything, it has boosted it.
The fact that she led the country’s defense at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague last December, where Myanmar is accused of ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’, only boosted her domestic popularity, bolstering her image as the “Mother of the Country”.
However, the continued violence in the Rakhine area caused the election authorities to cancel voting in large parts of Rakhine state, effectively disenfranchising the Rohingya. Civil society activists estimate that nearly two million voters were denied their political rights as a result. Many in Chin, Shan, Kachin, Kayin and Mon states were also not allowed to vote. Although this has reduced the credibility of the election it has had no impact on Aung San Suu Kyi’s national standing.
The NLD has won more than 80% of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of the national parliament. The NLD also has absolute majorities in 12 of the 14 state and regional parliaments – with only Rakhine and Shan states avoiding the ‘Red tidal wave’.
Official results released last Friday by the Union Election Commission (UEC) confirmed that the NLD had secured an absolute majority winning a total 396 majority in both houses of parliament [258 and 138 respectively] – well over the 322 needed to elect the president and form the next government. Up for grabs were 476 seats out of 644 – as 166 seats are allocated to the military appointees. While 22 seats in ethnic areas were canceled ostensibly for security reasons.
The former ruling party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which lost power to the NLD in the previous 2015 elections was humiliated winning only 33 seats. They – and 15 other political parties have protested to the UEC that the election was not free nor fair, and that they should be repeated. The UEC dismissed the USDP claim.
There is no point in re-running the election, said commentator Zeya Thu. The NLD is so large and overwhelming it cannot be ousted. Even other pro-democracy parties which were left without seats acknowledge that with all the problems of the election process, the public verdict was indisputable.
“The election result is undeniable, even though the election process was very controversial,” the leader of one of the new parties, the Peoples’ Progressive Party, Dr Thet Thet Khine told South Asian Monitor (SAM) in an interview.
Other parties like the Peoples’ party led by the former 1988 student leader Ko Ko Kyi agrees. Election observers have concluded that the voting took place smoothly on polling day despite forecasts of a low-turn-out. In fact, more than 70% of the registered voters exercised their franchise. The UEC, of course, defended its procedures: “This election was transparent,” said its spokesperson Myint Naing. “We had no bias.” Despite “some discrepancies it was a peaceful and smooth,” said Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, head of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) – the largest local monitoring organization.
While the international observers from the US-based Carter Centre concluded that there were “no major irregularities” during voting and counting but they did criticize the flaws in the legal framework that limit democracy in Myanmar. The election administration “demonstrated resilience in adjusting to the challenges posed by COVID-19” to deliver a mostly smoothly run election, said a press release from the Carter Centre.
Of course, the military still appoints 25% of the seats in all parliaments, and appoints three ministers – border, defense and Home – as stipulated in the pro-military constitution of 2008. It is this which irks most voters.
“We voted NLD, because we believe that it is the only party that can bring the country together and establish real democracy,” Aung Min Tun, a 30-year old English teacher told SAM as he came out of a polling station in Mandalay. “But we also see the NLD as the only party that can and will change the Constitution, introduce much needed educational reform and further economic liberalizsation,” he added.
These views were echoed right across the country, by more than 20 voters interviewed by the South Asian Monitor after they had voted. “We are voting to make the country more democratic and more developed,” said Chaw Thinzar Tun, an 18-year old medical student in Southern Shan state.
Most voters interviewed were of the same opinion: the need for constitutional change, unity, peace and reconciliation – and a total rejection of the military’s role in the country’s political area, “The key issue for me in this election was democracy, and perhaps more importantly, I do not want a return to a military-led regime,” Shwe Yee Saw Myint – a 31-year-old communications consultant based in Yangon – told SAM emphatically.
Most analysts and commentators like Zeya Thu, the renowned Myanmar columnist and CEO of the Voice magazine -- believe the election results reflected a unique and emotional mixture of hero-worship, anti-military sentiment, the absence of any formidable political opposition in many parts of Myanmar and the Covid19 crisis.
For weeks there have been concerns, especially within the ruling party, that many voters may not turn out to cast their ballots because of apathy and the risk posed by the Covid19pandedmic. “Many people who previously considered staying at home to avoid Covid responded to Aung San Suu Kyi’s heartfelt appeal to them last week when she told them voting was more important than Covid for the future of the country.”
But the last straw was when the military issued a statement, early last week, asking the government to take responsibility for the mistakes of the much-criticized Union Election Commission that the government had appointed. It was seen as a thinly veiled threat to justify military intervention, according to Zeya Thu.
Su Su Zaw, a 19-year old university student and first-time voter in Mandalay said: “We had to come out and support the NLD against a potential military take-over. Non-elected soldiers have no place in parliament. And I strongly think the military should stop meddling in Myanmar politics.”
William Maung, an independent business and financial consultant based in Yangon said: “Voting for the NLD this time round was like an automated response: there were no alternative and the public willingly fell in behind the NLD because of the Covid crisis, their hatred of the military, the lack of any other political alternatives, and the desperate need for continued political and economic reform.”
This over whelming support for the NLD is rooted in Myanmar culture, he argued. “To understand the vote, it is necessary to understand Myanmar’s hero-worshipping culture and the irresistible pull of supporting the ‘winner’. As long as its party leader Aung San Suu Kyi is alive and active in the country’s politics -- no matter what happens -- people will vote for the NLD,” he said.
“People still believe in the bottom of their hearts that the Lady is the only one who can stop the country from becoming a dictatorship,” according to Maung.
But there are many analysts and commentators who fear that this overwhelming electoral success will strengthen authoritarian tendencies within the party. “We are heading for a one-party dictatorship,” warned a Chin activist and spokesperson for the Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD).
“The landslide win for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD means they are still supported even after all their failure to protect and defend minorities, and are allowed to continue what they have been doing,” said prominent activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi.
This lack of checks and balances in parliament worries many voters, activists and politicians alike. “Although I am a Kachin, I voted for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) because I would like to strengthen the checks and balance mechanism in the Hluttaws (parliament) which has not happened under the previous two governments,” said Yaung Htang Langjaw – a 25-year-old freelance translator based in the Shan city of Lashio.
“Now the NLD has been returned as the government – with the trust of the public -- I expect the government to find a solution to the country’s civil war, ensure that the rights of the minorities are protected, and vigorously protect the freedom of expression right across the country,” she told SAM.
Ethnic-based political parties did draw votes away in some areas: especially in Karenni, Mon, Rakhine and Shan states. Many ethnic people in the country’s periphery feel sidelined by the central government -- which is dominated by the Bamar majority.
But some analysts say that despite the NLD’s massive electoral victory, they should reach out to the ethnic parties and open a dialogue on their role in the regional and state administration and parliament.
“It would be a positive gesture for national reconciliation if the NLD reached out to ethnic parties for government posts, including possible appointments as Chief Ministers – and not confine it to one Vice President,” said Zaw Naing, a prominent Myanmar commentator and CEO of Mandalay Technology.
Already the NLD has initiated tentative steps to reach out to the ethnic political parties and the ethnic communities to engage in discussions about the future and possible negotiations for inclusion in the regional and state governments.