Burma’s opposition has swept virtually all of the seats contested in Sunday’s by-elections, “a startling result that showed strong support for the opposition even among government employees and soldiers.”
The National League for Democracy party took at least 43 of 45 seats up for grabs in a major defeat for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, an outcome that is causing “disarray” within the ranks of the former ruling military and raising speculation about a backlash by hardliners.
“We hope that this will be the beginning of a new era, when there will be more emphasis on the role of the people in the everyday politics of our country,” said NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. “We hope that all other parties that took part in the elections will be in a position to cooperate with us to create a genuinely democratic atmosphere.”
But one government adviser told the Financial Times “that the extent of the NLD victory could increase pressure on the reformist president from conservatives within his military-dominated government.”
“It’s impossible that they are going to just look at this landslide victory and carry on business as usual,” said U Thant Myint-U, a historian and former U.N. official.
“There’s a possibility that some within the establishment will get nervous and see this as a threat,” he said. “But I think the message that is more likely to get to the government is that they need to move that much more quickly to implement policies that benefit the people.”
“They expected an NLD victory, but not on this scale – there are some serious discussions going on in Naypyidaw,” said a person close to several cabinet ministers:
…. the absence of any statement on the by-election from the office of president Thein Sein and the government-backed Union Solidarity and Development party suggested that the scale of the opposition National League for Democracy’s victory had caused disarray in Naypyidaw, the capital.
The result makes the lifting of international sanctions more likely, analysts say, but some fear it may also precipitate a an adverse reaction from military hardliners against what Burmese writer Swe Win calls the “personality-driven” democratization process.
The USDP’s defeat was “a clear humiliation”, said a diplomat, noting: “Some blame [President] Thein Sein’s reforms; now, if he can’t deliver the economic benefits of all this openness, he could face a backlash.”
The NLD victory “is humiliating for the government and could bolster hardliners,” who oppose Thein Sein’s reforms, analysts suggest.
But the regime is unable to halt or reverse the country’s reform process without jeopardizing the prospects for the lifting of international sanctions.
Suu Kyi is in a “strategic symbiosis” with some of the military and ex-generals, said Maung Zarni, a Burma analyst at the London School of Economics. “They need her and she needs them to break the 25 years of political stalemate,” Zarni said. “She holds the key for the regime’s need for its international acceptance and normalization.”
With the election results capping a series of reforms, including ceasefire deals with ethnic rebel groups apart from the northern Kachin, “it is time for the west to normalize [relations]”, said one Yangon-based diplomat.
“This election is an important step in Burma’s democratic transformation, and we hope it is an indication that the government of Burma intends to continue along the path of greater openness, transparency, and reform,” said a White House statement.
But US secretary of state Hillary Clinton hinted that lifting sanctions would be premature. While welcoming the result as the latest sign of progress in Burma’s reform process, she said “it is too early to know what the progress of recent months means … there are no guarantees about what lies ahead for the people of Burma”.
The Obama administration congratulated Suu Kyi and the citizens of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
The by-elections should be seen “as an event akin to Nelson Mandela being released from prison: a step toward permanent change, but only a step,” says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Joshua Kurlantzick:
The NLD will have the power to criticize the government and to propose changes, but it will be a small party in the parliament. The true test will come in three years, when Myanmar is supposed to hold national elections for all seats, potentially allowing the NLD or other opposition parties to actually control parliament. Before that time, the government will have to make good on other difficult promises, including opening up the media landscape after years of harsh press laws, creating a more level playing field for all political parties, and dealing with the largest and most difficult ethnic armies.
Economic reform, liberalization of censorship, new labor laws and the release of political prisoners have raised hopes about the reform process led by President Thein Sein, but many observers fear that the reforms remain reversible and do not yet amount to a genuine democratic transition.
“The real test is whether the new parliament can reform repressive laws and civilians can assert authority over the military,” says Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“When I visited Burma last month, it was impossible not to be struck by the powerful sense among many Burmese that this is an enormous moment for the country, a political opportunity that many barely dared to hope for over the last twenty years,” says Carnegie’s Thomas Carothers, a leading democracy expert.
“Encouraging as they are, however, these developments represent only a doorway to a possible democratic transition,” he notes. “The country’s power holders—a long-entrenched, antidemocratic military and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—have not yet given up any significant structural levers of power.”
The result is both a major victory and challenge to the NLD, a party characterized by ramshackle organization and disparate factions lacking experience in governing and detailed policies to address the country’s pressing problems and effect a switch from protest to participation. The elections confirmed the popularity of Aung Suu Kyi and the NLD, but also raised questions about the party’s capacity to shape government policy and the Nobel laureate’s ability to convert charisma into viable political strategy.
“The question is what next? Popularity is one thing, economy is another,” says Thant Thaw Kaung. “She is smart, even brilliant in some ways. My worry is the party – many around her are ex-political prisoners who were in prison for years; few know about economics or are involved with the business sector.”
On the global stage, a new biography notes, democracy icon Suu Kyi has been a moral leader, akin to Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, insisting on nonviolent resistance to repression and injustice.
“But she has never shown herself to be much of a political strategist, one observer notes:
She is brave and noble, but not especially crafty. …. If this time, things are truly different in Myanmar, it will be fascinating to see how her skills sharpen and her role evolves.
Suu Kyi will need to negotiate what one analyst calls the “new equilibrium” in Burmese politics.
“You have three power centers now: the president, the house speaker and the Lady,” said Tin Maung Than, president of Myanmar Egress, a consultancy that works with government and non-government groups on development and economic issues.
“These three centers must now work together to offset elements of the hardliners in the executive, legislative and military fields … and it has to be a workable mechanism, they must be strong enough to offset attacks by the hardliners”.
The NLD may be able to call on the expertise and insights of exiled Burmese democracy activists and groups, including the US-based National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, as they start to return home.
In 1990, NCGUB’s members were part of a wave of opposition politicians who won parliamentary seats in a nationwide election, NPR reports. But the military government ignored the results and cracked down on the opposition, including its standard-bearer Aung San Suu Kyi.
A handful of would-be Members of Parliament fled to Burma’s border with Thailand to start a government-in-exile. Sein Win, Suu Kyi’s first cousin and Prime Minster of the NCGUB, was among them. ….Sein Win and other NCGUB members also started traveling from country to country, trying to keep Burma issues on the radar. They were regular visitors to the UN General Assembly, and helped shape a series of Burma resolutions passed by that body.
“They were very instrumental in insuring that the resolutions talked about democracy, human rights, tri-partite dialogue–all of the key issues that are now sort of the conventional and widely accepted talking points on Burma,” says Brian Joseph, a Burma expert and Asia program director at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO that is the main supporter of the NCGUB.
“Its role really was as a spokes organization and a way for people inside Burma to speak to the international community through these surrogates,” Joseph says.
Despite the positive signs emerging from the polls, it is too early to lift sanctions and the “leading democracies should continue to move slowly in engaging with Myanmar,” says CFR’s Kurlantzick:
They should continue to boost aid and ensure that it reaches the ethnic minority regions where some of the refugee flows have been largest and the need for emergency assistance is greatest. The United States, leading Southeast Asian nations, Australia, Japan, and the European Union also could work more closely with the World Bank and the IMF to better assess Myanmar’s enormous needs, and, during a major aid conference planned for this summer in Myanmar, develop a plan for reforming the banking, financial, and educational sectors.
However, because the election is only a small step toward a truly free national vote, Washington and other actors should not lift sanctions on trade and investment with Myanmar now. Instead, they should wait at least until the end of 2012 or 2013 to see how the NLD and Suu Kyi are treated in parliament, what kind of freedom they have to criticize and push legislation, and whether the planned 2015 national elections are likely to go forward.