If any election was hyped up to supposedly deliver something that it simply could not, this was it. But then the Burmese elections were not usual; this was not a vote on a specific policy or a vote to choose a new government, but more an explosive expression – though arguably in a cynically controlled fashion – of the popular will after nearly a quarter century of its denial.
The by-election was initially for 48 seats in Burma’s 664-seat Hluttaw, the national parliament that comprises both upper and lower houses. These seats became available when their previous holders were appointed to ministerial or cabinet roles in the country’s executive, forcing them to vacate their parliamentary seats as per the rules of the Burmese system. Given the small number of seats available, these by-elections never really offered the opposition a path to power. Three seats were incontestable because of the ongoing conflict in Burma’s northernmost Kachin state.
Interviewed on the day after the polls, President Thein Sein’s chief political adviser Ko Ko Hlaing described the elections as a ‘test’ preceding the ‘final exam’ at the 2015 general election. ‘I think the NLD (National League for Democracy), especially their leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has shifted their strategy from playing outside the constitutional framework to playing within the rules of the game,’ Ko Ko Hliang added. ‘It gives [the NLD] an official voice, and one reason for this is [its] confidence in the president.’
Indeed, in November last year the NLD ended a 20-year boycott of official politics largely because of the reforms put in place by former general and current president Thein Sein since he took office in March 2011. Regarding Thein Sein’s historic meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in August 2011, Ko Ko Hlaing said, ‘Whenever [Aung San Suu Kyi] describes the President, she sees a very sincere man who is committed to reform. After they met last August, I think they could construct mutual trust and mutual understanding, which is a significant achievement for our democratisation.’ That rapport has come as a surprise to many. Thein Sein was always viewed as a moderate but, as Hilary Clinton termed it, few expected him to show such ‘courage’.
Ko Ko Hliang also pointed out the contrast between Burma and other countries experiencing democratic transition – for instance those of the Arab Spring – where ‘the ruling leaders and the opposition forces never met.’ This point is key, because while it is remarkable to have a politician very close to the inner circle of rulers comparing what is happening in Burma to the exuberance of the Arab Spring, the Burmese government is also seeking to distance the two situations. Aung San Suu Kyi is seen to be doing her job properly because she has not fomented street protests, opting instead for more ‘conciliatory’ tactics.
Burma now looks forward to the 2015 general election, but with the respective leaders of both the government and the opposition now in their mid-sixties, questions remain about their roles beyond that date. Thein Sein is known to have a heart condition, and was even rumoured to be reluctant to take up his current position as a result. When Aung San Suu Kyi was taken ill during her incredibly gruelling election campaign, many hoped it was just the result of exhaustion and nothing more serious.
NLD veteran U Win Tin and others have voiced further misgivings, questioning Thein Sein’s grip on power and his control over his own government. Win Tin was sceptical about participating in the by-election mainly due to Burma’s constitution and current structure of government, which heavily favour the military and, among other things, grant tremendous power to the National Defence and Security Council of 11 serving or former generals. Many observers have been predicting a backlash from aggrieved military personnel who feel their control ebbing.
However, when asked whether the Council was concerned by the pre-eminence of Aung San Suu Kyi, Ko Ko Hlaing explained that they were not threatened. ‘The President is himself the chairman of the Defence and Security Council and this issue [Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal] will be discussed in this committee,’ Ko Ko Hlaing said. ‘Also, you should remember that 25% of the parliament is represented by the military … plus they can control [and] they can balance the situation in parliament … There are also some provisions in the constitution: in [an] emergency situation the military can intervene according to the law, according to the constitution, so this will guarantee their position.’
In 1990 the NLD secured its first landslide electoral victory, though on that occasion they did it with a smaller proportion of votes than this time. Following the 1990 election, the military ‘surprised’ and dithered before declaring that the country would have to draw up a constitution before the elected party could take power. This, they said, would be done by an assembly in which the NLD would have far smaller representation than the proportionate number of seats it had won in the election. The NLD rejected the process, and the military unilaterally wrote the Burmese constitution that remains effective to this day. The proportion of seats offered to the NLD in that assembly, however, was far larger than the number of seats it will occupy in parliament starting from 23 April, barring any untoward surprises. Looking ahead to 2015, should the NLD want to change the constitution it would require the consent of 75% of the parliament. It is improbable that the NLD will come to control so large a proportion of the parliament. Indeed, the 75% requirement is intended to bolster the military’s conservative stance by making constitutional changes very difficult.
However, many in the constituencies that the NLD contested in this by-election had more pressing concerns than any grand political plans. In central Rangoon’s Mingalar Taungnyunt, won by Ma Phyu Phyu Thin of the NLD, the Muslim community that comprises about 35% of the district hoped to end what they see as many years of ethnic discrimination. Soe Aung, a 53-year-old Muslim NLD member, said that the Muslim community are regularly denied the identity cards required to complete a host of bureaucratic tasks. Soe Aung says that obtaining one requires a hefty bribe of some 30,000 kyat (approximately USD 37) to the local authorities. He also says that the community has been forbidden from conducting religious ceremonies in their district, forcing them to gather outside the town for Eid celebrations. Such discrimination, according to MP elect Phyu Phyu Thin, affects not just the Muslim but also the Christian and Hindu communities in this traditionally heterogeneous city.
A few days before the polls, the candidate from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) held a small gathering outside the party’s Rangoon office. Like a firebrand town-crier, deputy USDP candidate Win Aye stood on the back of a pickup truck surrounded by a gaggle of party ‘stalwarts’ sporting neat green caps bearing the party’s lion emblem (NLD members in the same constituency alleged that those attending the USDP rally were each paid 3000 kyat, or USD 4). Their manner was strikingly different from that of NLD supporters, showing forced smiles instead of the open jubilation of a party reborn. The reticent smiles evaporated and all eyes turned to this writer – the only foreigner in their midst – when Win Aye mentioned America.
Win Aye was playing on a central theme in Burma’s official memory of past attempts at reform. That memory was reinforced on the occasion of Burma’s Armed Forces Day a few days before this year’s elections when state television saluted the army for stepping in when activists took to the streets back in 1988. The government’s propaganda has always claimed that the military saved the country from falling into ‘foreign servitude’. The USDP has long alleged that the NLD is a Western puppets. It is an especially easy accusation to throw at Aung San Suu Kyi given her foreign connections: she spent time in India in the 1960s while her mother was the Burmese Ambassador to that country, and later attended Oxford in England, where she famously married Briton Michael Aris in 1972.
Ko Ko Hlaing presents such nationalistic sentiments in more measured fashion, describing government policy in strategic terms by stating that the government’s policy is to not allow foreign troops to set foot on Burmese soil under any circumstances. Moving the capital to Naypyidaw in the middle of the country, Ko Ko Hlaing explains, was the result of bitter experience of past invasions – most recently British invasion by sea, and earlier three land wars against the Chinese, most notably when Kublai Khan’s Mongol hordes invaded in the 13th century. Kublai Khan famously routed a far larger army on elephant-back when his horde simply dismounted and rained arrows down upon the Burmese, causing them to be trampled by their own terrified mounts. Burma has maintained neutrality since the end of British rule in 1948, but still maintains a standing army of close to half a million men whose sole tasks are to reign in the country’s rebellious ethnicities and occasionally crush protests.
Popular but powerless
In the immediate future, however, the NLD seems destined to remain a peripheral entity in the Burmese administration, with its power restricted by the constitution and with only about 6% representation in the parliament despite securing the popular mandate at virtually every juncture so far. Still, the NLD has now proven many of its critics wrong. After the 2010 polls, which the NLD boycotted, many elitist analysts had declared the party a spent force. The US embassy summed this opinion up by calling the NLD leadership ‘sclerotic’ in a colourful leaked cable.
Moreover, some have predicted that the task of governance will pose a much sterner test for a party accustomed to existing as an activist entity. This, no doubt, is what the current Burmese government is hoping for: that the fervour the NLD now inspires will wane as the party becomes associated with the state’s everyday failings. While it remains to be seen if this will be the case, the enthusiasm which greeted the NLD in these election and the promise of even incremental change could be potent enough to carry the party through to 2015 in strong form. On the streets of the old capital Rangoon, it is hard to see any expression of popular support for anyone other than the NLD – the party logo adorns nearly every taxi, and hawkers are doing a roaring trade in NLD stickers, t-shirts and posters. That enthusiasm is also reflected in casual conversations: ‘We are an NLD family!’ exclaimed a group of young men, clearly not all biologically related, while relaxing beside a cigarette vendor in downtown Rangoon. This is in stark contrast to the USDP, whose logo is confined to stone plaques resembling gravestones at the ends of the streets the party paved in the run up to the 2010 elections.
The situation is much the same outside Rangoon. On the last day before elections, Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s massive appeal was on display on the miles of dusty lanes in her constituency just south of the city. Waiting for her arrival that evening, villagers lined the roads for hours. When the Lady arrived, the mere sight of her induced old women to jump up and down crying, ‘Daw Suu, Daw Suu!’ Thousands followed behind Aung San Suu Kyi in a jubilant improvised convoy draped in the red and yellow NLD flag.
When the NLD registered for the by-elections back in November, party chairperson Tin Oo stated that it would usher in ‘new blood’. This certainly does seem to have happened. A charismatic example is Zeya Thaw, a young man of only 32 who introduced hip hop to Burma and who, like many NLD members, spent time in jail for his opinions. Zeya Thaw won one of four seats contested in Naypyidaw, which saw perhaps the most instructive contests of this election, revealing not only a lack of serious cheating but also a base of support for the NLD among the civil servants who form a large proportion of voters in the new capital.
On the Friday before polling, Aung San Suu Kyi described the by-election as only the beginning of the road to democracy. The military’s dominance of the country’s political and economic life remains ominous. It could also be argued that the military has won a partial victory in what has been a long war of attrition: they have neutralised Aung San Suu Kyi, their greatest nemesis, who has compromised and accepted a settlement that falls well short of what the people and she herself have been demanding. The onus now falls on the NLD’s leadership to lay the foundations for a continuing struggle that looks set to outlive many of them.
~ Joseph Allchin is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia. Follow him on Twitter @j_allchin.