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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Myanmar results point to Aung San Suu Kyi’s enduring popularity despite her party’s patchy record

Wedged between, China and India, Myanmar’s natural instinct is to avoid undue influences from either, even as it is open to enter into beneficial cooperation. India’s best bet will be to ensure it remains that way.

Written by VS Seshadri | Updated: November 19, 2020 9:15:54 am
The NLD has scored largely because of Suu Kyi. Hugely popular still, she is seen as someone who could stand up to the military. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) have handsomely won the just-held general elections in Myanmar, securing 396 of the 476 seats in the combined houses of the national parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) that, in turn, will elect the president of the country for the next five years. Elections were not held for 22 seats in the Rakhine, Shan and a few other states because of supposed ethnic unrest; and 166 seats are reserved for the military. So, NLD has won more than 80 per cent of seats for which elections were held, a few more than the seats it held in 2015. It has also secured a 60 per cent majority of the full house.

The main opposition party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is largely formed of retired generals from the armed forces, fared rather poorly,

securing only 33 seats against 41 seats they got in the last elections. Its tally was even worse in the elections to the 14 region/state assemblies, declining from 75 to 38 seats. The NLD fared better even in these elections with its score edging up from 497 in 2015 to 524 of the 641 seats for which elections were held. The general expectation prior to the elections was that the ethnic parties would do better this time, because of mergers of different regional outfits within each ethnic state. Some of them had aligned with the NLD in the last elections. But there was disenchantment with the NLD for not adequately taking up their cause.

The NLD has scored largely because of Suu Kyi. This is despite the patchy record of the current NLD government in terms of pushing the country’s development or in taking forward the ethnic peace and reconciliation process. Hugely popular still, she is seen as someone who could stand up to the military. That she personally went and defended the country’s case in the International Court of Justice against allegations of atrocities against the Rohingya community was a great hit domestically, notwithstanding the court’s final ruling, which was not flattering to the country. Likewise, she used the coronavirus crisis to advantage during an election year. Her everyday media presence exhorting people to take precautionary measures, reinforced the image of “mother Suu” as she is popularly regarded.

Editorial | Aung San Suu Kyi wins a third time, but her government can’t continue to ignore the Rohingya refugee problem

The USDP is seen in the country as a proxy for the military (called Tatmadaw in Myanmar) and has not been able to distance itself through popular initiatives that could garner wider support. Relations between the NLD government and the military have also not been cordial. A range of issues, including efforts to amend the constitution or to move forward the peace process, have seen wide differences with the military, which is not yet ready to show flexibility, perhaps seeing these moves as unripe. Somewhat unprecedentedly, at the inaugural of the fourth session of the ethnic peace conference in August this year, the military chief Min Aung Hlaing publicly criticised the government for taking the role of a mediator between the armed forces and the ethnic armed organisations.

The Tatmadaw regarding itself as the sole national guardian is not new. But during the earlier government of Thein Sein, the military generally refrained from comments outside its purview. The Tatmadaw chief has, however, participated in two meetings with some opposition parties, one held in August this year, apparently organised by the USDP to discuss what to do if the election turned unfair. A few days before the elections, the Tatmadaw chief also pointed to the mishandling of preparations by the election commission and said he would be very wary of the election results — his allegations were based on a few complaints by political parties. After the results, the USDP has alleged irregularities and sought fresh elections monitored by the armed forces.

There has been some speculation that the Tatmadaw chief is looking for what to do next after his extended term comes to an end next year. On being questioned, he has already indicated that he is open to entering politics after retirement. If the USDP had fared well in the elections, he could have become the President with the support of the 25 per cent seats reserved for the military. Whether he will agree to be elected a vice-president — that may still be possible — remains to be seen.

Constitutional provisions, however, will not also allow Suu Kyi to become the president since her late husband was a foreigner. Before the last election in 2015, when she was asked about her position in a new government, she answered she would be “above the president”. That is exactly what she did by becoming the de facto power centre in the government, with the contrivance of the post of State Counsellor that has no constitutional mention. A repetition could well be on the cards with the prospect of a constitutional change, which requires 75 per cent majority, very dim.

After the results, the NLD has already reached out to Myanmar ethnic parties to join it to form a unity government and build a democratic federal union. This will be generally welcomed by the latter, even as they will be looking for details, particularly on how Suu Kyi plans to persuade the Tatmadaw to agree to cooperate.

It is to be seen if the Western countries will be willing to get back to working closely with the reelected NLD government even as the Rohingya issue is far from any resolution. Will the Biden administration also take more interest as against Donald Trump who more or less ignored Myanmar but for some sanctions? President Barack Obama was in Myanmar on two occasions, one a bilateral visit. But that was before the Rohingya crisis. Interestingly, the Chargé d’Affaires of the US embassy in Myanmar had, in July, written an op-ed on his mission’s website on China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and its activities in South China sea. He wrote that China had used similar behaviour in Myanmar to intimidate, threaten and undermine Myanmar sovereignty. It will, of course, help greatly if the re-elected NLD government also takes some initiatives to address the Rohingya issue and brings greater peace to the Rakhine state.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already congratulated Suu Kyi for the victory and conveyed that India will work with her to strengthen the traditional bonds of friendship between the two countries. Wedged between two large countries, China and India, Myanmar’s natural instinct is to avoid undue influences from either, even as it is open to enter into beneficial cooperation. India’s best bet will be to ensure it remains that way.

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 19, 2020 under the title ‘Standing with Mother Suu’. The writer, a former Ambassador of India to Myanmar, is presently a Senior Consulting Fellow at the Delhi Policy Group

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