Tide Of Times Of Generals & General Elections: P. Kharel

Except for those with blinkers, Myanmar’s November 8 general elections have had predictable results, with the Aung San Suukyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) winning a big majority and the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) reduced to a small spot in Parliament. The incumbency factor did not help the USDP, as voters had begun getting restless and disenchanted with their hopes having been dashed without any visible signs of better living standards in the offing.


The election results have an added significance contributed by the high turnout of voters at 80 per cent of the total number of eligible voters. The two-thirds majority of elective seats confirm the NLD’s longstanding as the country’s most prominent democracy champion. In 2010, the NLD was compelled to remain out of the elections and allowed to take part only in the by-elections, in which it won most of the few dozen seats at stake. The USDP had formally taken over power from the junta in 2011 to form a civilian government.


A series of doubts got dispelled when the country’s most democratic general elections were held this time on November 8 under a constitution that was basically military-scripted. The military did not derail the electoral process nor did it prevent the main opposition from contesting. In his bid to quell rumours, President Thein Sein, on election eve, assured voters that the military would respect the poll results. 


Since Suu Kyi is barred by the existing constitution from becoming president as her husband was a British national and her two children hold British passports, she is determined to call the shots no matter who becomes the president from her party. Before and after the elections, she repeatedly said that she would be “above the president”.


Suu Kyi, who spent most of her years since 1989 in detention, had been placed under restrictions on her movements since the past five years. She campaigned without hurdles, except for her own expedient reasons for not raising some critical issues like the fate of the Rohingya Muslims, who are stateless. Religious and communal violence also occurs at disturbing pace. Now it will be her government’s task to address the issues that the NLD leader hardly touched upon previously.


Slow pace

There is a difference between the 1990, the 2010 and this month’s general elections. In 1990, Myanmar had its first general elections since the 1962 army coup. Suu Kyi, in detention at the time of the elections, became a rallying point for the opposition to muster votes attracted by promises of political reforms and accelerated pace of prosperity. The NLD won a landslide majority, taking the junta by complete surprise. The elections were held and the results announced, but the handing over of power to the winning party did not take place. Instead, the men in uniform declared that a new constitution suited to the country would be formulated.


The constitution-making took two decades with a lot of dilly-dallying by the military. With the main opposition deliberately kept out, the constitution was announced, paving way for the 2010 general elections. However, the event saw the non-participation of the NLD, as the junta machinated to ensure such a situation. Under the new poll regulations, the NLD was stipulated to expel its leader Suu Kyi from party membership, as she was sentenced to jail by a court of law on some unconvincing obscure charges.


Rather than accepting such humiliating conditions, the party preferred to face another preposterous consequence that led to the scrapping of its registration at the election commission for failing to expel Suu Kyi and becoming eligible for poll participation.


As far as the junta was concerned, this all worked as per its script in 2010. The party it backed won an overwhelming majority of seats. On top of that, the constitution has a provision under which the military’s nominees fill in 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament.     


In the past couple of years, Suu Kyi was seen as being aloof and authoritarian as the leader of the main opposition which has been at the forefront of the campaign for political reforms. Some party members, dissatisfied with the mechanism and style of ticket distribution for the recent elections, created unprecedented disgruntlements. Yet she held on her own because of her immense popularity among the Myanmarese in general.


Raising questions on the conduct of elections is typical of opposition parties in the developing world. The foreign press echoes the same, emphasising on the opposition’s confidence in securing victory, only to report the opposition’s “charges” of ballot-stuffing when the verdict goes the incumbent’s way. Now that the opposition has won, the recent elections are termed the most democratic in the country’s history.  


The Western press described President Thein Sein as reform-minded. President Barack Obama made it a point to visit Myanmar and unroll a red carpet welcome to the former member of the junta at the White House—a reception rarely accorded the leaders of the third world, whose background is associated with military rule for decades. The gesture is known as serving “strategic interests—euphemism for comprising the principles parroted day in and day out for the rest of the world to honour but thrown to the winds when the expediency of parochial interests clash with the same.


Suu Kyi, rather than the new president, will bask in success stories or bear the brunt of failure to deliver the promised goods. It is an indiscretion on her part to describe herself as “above president”, which now leads the people to dismiss the executive head as only a yes-man.  Among the major challenges for the NLD government are the sluggish economic, ethnic conflicts and the issue of the stateless Rohingya Muslims.


Now for action

Having a democratically elected government after all these decades is something new to most voters in Myanmar. It also means high expectations. As Myanmar is a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations, people want their living standards to match the average ASEAN’s at the earliest.  


On September 9, 2015, a meeting, also attended by Thein Sein, was held with a dozen militant groups in the capital Nayayidaw. Two major rebel groups did not attend the meeting and hence are not party to the truce. There is, therefore, a big question mark over the conflict ending any time soon.  


The issue of citizenship for the stateless conditions of the Rohingya Muslims will not just wither away. Either they will have to be resettled and given citizenship or Western nations could step forward to absorb them as they did with some 100,000 Bhutanese refugees sheltered in Nepal for more than two decades.  


Rich in natural resources, Myanmar has big potentials for economic success story similar to some of its fellow members in the Association of South East Asian Nations. With such massive popular mandate, Suu Kyi and her party have the opportunity to show to the people what they had missed all these decades and what democracy means to the quality of life. The world will watch how the NLD government develops its relationship with the military.

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