Myanmar: Suu Kyi wins the elections, but the country’s future remains unclear

It is safe to assume that his week will be recorded as a special moment in Myanmar’s history. On November 8, the first free – or at least partly free – elections since 1990 were held, and they may turn out to be the first ones whose results will be respected since 1962.

Supporters of Myanmar's pro-democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi gather outside National League for Democracy headquarters (NLD) in Yangon, Myanmar, November 9, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

It all began when Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, went to the primary education school no. 3 in Bahan, an upscale neighborhood in Yangon. Cheered by supporters and besieged by journalists, the country’s democratic icon swiftly entered the polling station and cast her vote.

Millions of Burmese citizens did just the same. One was Yunn Ei, a 23 years old girl who told East she was excited about the elections.

“I spent all yesterday thinking about this. Here we are thinking of some changes, at least a little bit. Maybe more if there is a new government,” said Ei, referring to the possibility that the NLD may replace the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the group currently in power.

Myanmar has been under army rule for decades, with terrible results. When the British left in 1948, the country had plenty of problems but was also one of the richest in South East Asia. After decades of dictatorship, it is now one of the poorest, with a GDP per capita that in 2013 was just above $1,000.

Something began to change in 2010, when a rigged election brought the USDP to power and a cautious reform process began to take shape: censorship diminished, freedom to protest increased and investments boomed.

But to ordinary Burmese these reforms are too little, too late. The USDP is tightly connected with the armed forces – many of its members are former generals, current President Thein Sein included – and the average citizen still has a hard time earning a decent salary.

Political freedom remains circumscribed. Students have recently been arrested simply for holding peaceful protests and political prisoners keep on crowding the country’s jails.

It is not surprising that people want a new government as soon as possible, and it is precisely on this topic that the NLD has focused its campaign. It is paying off, as Suu Kyi’s party is on its way to achieve an incredible victory, trashing the USDP nearly everywhere.

The scale of the NLD’s triumph has caught analysts by surprise. Its success was taken for granted, but many believed the USDP would be able to at least sway some votes.

Sure enough, some problems were recorded. Controversies arose in Lashio, Shan State, and some votes look suspicious even in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and an NLD stronghold.

In Thaketa, one of Yangon’s neighborhoods, East found a polling station where interviewees all supported the incumbent government. “You can vote for whoever you want, but public employees prefer to vote for the government,” said Aye, a middle aged woman who works in the recycling industry. “It is a way of thinking, and public employees must take care of their families,” she told us.

Aye did not quite explain why family-oriented public employees should vote for the government. That was up to the taxi driver who took us back to downtown: he explained that public workers in Thaketa are poor and fear that the government would fire them if it knew they support the NLD.

Such cases were apparently limited, and according to data released on Friday, the NLD has won 348 seats in both chambers, while the USDP languishes at 40. This means that Suu Kyi’s party has taken over two thirds of the seats available to elected MPs - a magic number, as the current Constitution provides the armed forces with 25 percent of total seats and only a two thirds majority would allow the NLD to form its own government.

In spite of this mind-blowing result, it remains to be seen whether the NLD’s victory will shake Myanmar’s institutions. The main reason to doubt that sweeping changes are certain to come is once again the Constitution, which not only gives the military 25 percent of seats in parliament, but seems tailor-made to contain a victory of the opposition.

Section 59 (f) bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president on the grounds that her offspring hold British passports, and it is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces – rather than the Parliament - who chooses the minister of home affairs, defence and border security.

Chapter 13 goes as far as to give the army the right to take over the State machine in case a threat to national unity – such as an insurgency – takes shape. Such move would be all too easy to justify in Myanmar, where various rebel groups operate in ethnic areas.

In October, as a national ceasefire was being signed, an army offensive in Shan State led to over 6,000 people abandoning their homes in less than three weeks.

Furthermore, the Constitution is pretty much impossible to reform. In order to do so a majority of 75 percent of votes is needed in parliament - an impossible number to muster without the approval of the armed forces, who control 25 percent of seats.

“Changes? Certainly not because of today’s vote. Even if the National League for Democracy wins, they would have very little power,” said Bertil Lintner, a well-known journalist and expert of Burmese affairs who was also present as Suu Kyi voted.


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