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NEW UPDATES Asean Affairs   16  November 2015  

Elections in Myanmar: Winners, Losers, and the Future

Before the November 8 election in Burma, or Myanmar, I predicted that the National League for Democracy party (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, would win the largest number of seats, but not enough to form the government. I also predicted that Myanmar’s ethnic parties would win majorities in their states and thus hold a strong bargaining position with the major parties for the upcoming presidential election, expected in February 2016.

I was wrong. I underestimated the magnitude of anger and hatred of the people against the military and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). I also underestimated the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi. The election result represents the people’s retribution against the military, which kept them under its boots for decades.

The winners of this election are clearly Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, and the people of Myanmar. The losers are President Thein Sein, the USDP, the military, and the ethnic parties. The future of the country will be shaped by the NLD and the military, represented by Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.

The Winners:

Undoubtedly Aung San Suu Kyi is the biggest winner. All NLD candidates held her picture high, repeated her speeches, and praised her loudly to convince constituents to vote for them. They won because of her. Actually, it looks like she ran in all constituencies and she singlehandedly crushed all other candidates. This election was a referendum on Aung San Suu Kyi and whether she is trusted by the people to govern the country.

The people of Myanmar are also winners. They have quietly and successfully struck back against the military and the USDP in a non-violent way after decades of abuse, mismanagement, corruption, and human rights violations.

The NLD, which was harassed and attacked by the military regime for the last 25 years, now has a chance to rule the country. As the majority party, the NLD will hold the chairmanship of the lower house and upper house and will be able to nominate two vice-presidential candidates. An NLD member will become the next president of Myanmar. All chief ministers of the 14 regional governments will be appointed by the NLD president. Thirteen of 14 state and regional parliaments — the exception is Rakhine State — will be controlled by the NLD. The NLD now has an opportunity to prove that it can govern the country.

The Losers:

The military is the biggest loser. Military leaders expected to continue running the country for another 50 years with their carefully crafted 2008 constitution using the USDP, the party of retired generals, as its political front. Even under this constitution, which allows the military to hold significant power in all of the country’s affairs, the military will not be able to exercise full control.

President Thein Sein also was handed a sharp defeat. Although the constitution does not allow the president to campaign for the party, he violated the rules and tried hard to convince the people that the USDP, under his leadership and with strong backing of the military, was the best for the country. Thein Sein made numerous tours around the country, together with Commander Min Aung Hlaing, during the campaign period. He even said in his last monthly radio speech that he would try to amend the constitution to allow all cities to be run by elected bodies in his second term, instead of township administrators who are employees of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Now, he cannot do any of those things.

The USDP comes away a big loser as well. Its representatives claimed that they were the ones who changed the country from dictatorship to democracy. However, the people expressed their views clearly through their votes, making clear they want change, not only in the political system, but also in who their rulers are.

Ethnic parties were defeated handily, except the Arakan National Party, which won a majority in Rakhine State. Most ethnic parties are divided within their ranks, conflicted with personal interests and rivalry, and proved unable to convince a majority of their constituents to trust them.

The Future:

The future of the country will be shaped by the NLD and the military, at least for the next five years. Although the NLD will be able to lead the legislature, the military still controls 25 percent of the seats in these bodies and it can block any attempt to amend the constitution. The president will have to work with the ministers of Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Area Affairs, who will be appointed by the commander-in-chief.

In the powerful 11-member National Defense and Security Council, which has the authority to appoint the commander-in-chief, the military already has a majority of six seats and is able to undermine the president’s agenda. In this power-sharing dynamic between the military and the NLD, the political future of Myanmar is uncertain.

Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing will need to modify their mindsets to be able to accept each other, and only then “the two can tango.”

If Aung San Suu Kyi rushes to amend the constitution with an aim to reduce or abolish the powers of the military, tension and distrust will emerge on both sides, which could lead the country to chaos. If the military is not patient enough to engage Aung San Suu Kyi, and tries to find other ways to cling to power, the situation will be more dangerous. Both sides know well the danger of the extreme. Aung San Suu Kyi knows the risks and therefore she has requested dialogue with Min Aung Hlaing and Thein Sein. This is a smart move. Positive and productive relations between the two are critical for ensuring a peaceful political transition in the coming months.

Mr. Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Burma and currently lives in the United States. He serves as a consultant for Moemaka Multimedia, based in San Francisco, and as an adviser to the Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), a non-profit organization based in Yangon

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