On Sunday, November 8, Myanmar went to the polls. In essence, this was its first real election since 1990, and only the second since 1960, and the third if you count 2010, which moved Myanmar from a military junta-led government to a civilianised parliamentary system. More than 90 parties contested seats for the two Houses of parliament, as well as the 14 state and regional assemblies. Despite the large number of parties, all eyes were on the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Some worried about “free and fair” polls, but preliminary results seemed to indicate that the NLD had swept the board. There does not seem to have been any major infringement, despite repeated issues with voter lists before the elections. International observers deployed across the country confirmed that the voting had been free, although the fact that 25 per cent of the seats are reserved for the military means that it cannot be labelled fair. The NLD added to this the issue that candidates had suffered intimidation in the run-up to the elections, having filed more than 100 complaints over violations of election rules. However, since it looks like the NLD will indeed be the largest party, there isn’t much point in complaining about the process.
The USDP had campaigned hard on the development agenda. It was, after all, due to its efforts and the leadership of President U Thein Sein that the country had been transformed. As the results started to trickle in, the disappointment across the USDP ranks was intense. Acting USDP chair U Htay Oo has lost his seat, as has his predecessor, the popular speaker of the House, U Shwe Mann, who, in a previous incarnation before the reforms, had been the junta’s third most powerful general. Many of those who felt they had served the country and made change possible have had to concede defeat. This includes the president’s peace envoy, U Aung Min, who almost singlehandedly delivered an unprecedented peace process with ethnic armed groups (EAGs), and laid the foundation for the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement that was signed by eight EAGs on October 15 this year.
In some ethnic states, many parties and candidates were also licking their wounds. At the time of writing, when not all seats have been declared and the official announcement is still outstanding, it looks like ethnic parties have taken high losses in Rakhine State and some Shan State areas. There is little news on results in the conflict-torn Kachin State.
The magic number to control parliament is 67 per cent of all seats, as the military will continue to control 25 per cent of all legislative assemblies. Whilst Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be president herself, even with a big NLD win, she has nevertheless promised to be “above the president” and lead the country. No one has any doubt about that; the question that needs to be asked is, will she be able to unite the country?
Myanmar’s ethnic and religious diversity will not make this an easy task. An ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement, called Ma Ba Tha (the Society for the Protection of Race and Religion), led by monks has gained traction in the last three years and has been fuelling anti-Muslim feelings across the country. Ma Ba Tha’s influence did not only result in four race and religion protection laws being passed last year that clearly discriminate against Muslims, but it has also resulted in Muslim electoral candidates not being able to contest their seats. Not one of the 1,051 NLD candidates is a Muslim. The result might be a parliament without a single Muslim MP, despite a reasonably large Muslim population. The NLD has not spoken up for the disenfranchised Rohingyas either, in fear of being branded foreigner-friendly. Tuesday’s announcement that the NLD will “protect” Muslims sounds rather feeble.
A second issue includes the representation of ethnic people. Around 38 per cent of Myanmar’s population are ethnic minorities, and there is a large number of ethnic parties. In 2010, the ethnic MPs formed the first legal opposition to the USDP-dominated parliament. Despite local ethnic leaders’ misgivings, the NLD fielded candidates in all ethnic-majority areas. Consequently, many locals feared the vote would be split, leading to the end of the vibrant ethnic politics that had been an unforeseen result of the 2010 elections. If the NLD has really displaced the ethnic parties, this does not bode well for an inclusive political process. The NLD has always maintained that democracy is its first priority, and that ethnic grievances can be addressed later. Given the protracted and ongoing peace process with the ethnic-armed groups, a sizeable ethnic representation is essential so as to represent the ethnic civilian voice. A parliament dominated by Bamar voices will not be good for the peace process, or the planned political dialogue.
A third issue will be relations with the military. Myanmar has mainland Southeast Asia’s largest standing army. The constitution guarantees the military’s place in parliament and its control over key ministries. It will remain a significant stakeholder in the political system. A divided parliament, along military-civilian lines, won’t be good for either national reconciliation or the peace process. The NLD will have to find a way to cooperate with the chief of staff, as well as the military MPs. The NLD’s commitment to altering the constitution and, in particular, changing Article 436 (which requires the approval of more than 75 per cent, or three-fourths, of all MPs to carry a constitutional amendment) is likely to bring the party into conflict with the military leadership.
There is some time to the actual transfer of power in the new year. These next few weeks will be challenging, as those who have held power for so long will have to adjust to a new political reality. It is also a time when the NLD needs to think about how it will govern not just for its supporters, but for all the people of Myanmar.
The writer, professor of education and South Asian studies at University College London, is author of ‘Post Military Myanmar — the Myanmar reforms and challenges of democratisation’ (2015).