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Myanmar By-Elections: An Analysis

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By C. S. Kuppuswamy

The by-elections, unique in so many respects, went off peacefully and the dust is settling down. About six million voters were eligible to vote (in more than 8000 polling booths) for 48 seats (as originally announced) vacated by law makers (elected in November 2010) who have become ministers or have been appointed on government commissions.

The Election Commission on 23 March 2012 postponed the voting in three of the constituencies in Kachin state due to security concerns. Hence voting took place on 01 April 2012 only for 45 seats (37 in the lower house, 6 in the upper house and 2 in state/regional assemblies). The voter turn out was high though the exact percentage has not yet been revealed.

In a repeat performance of the 1990 elections the National League for Democracy (NLD) has swept the polls in this by-election by winning a total of 43 out of 44 seats, it contested. The euphoria among the people and at the NLD HQ has died down and apprehensions are being aired as to whether the regime will honour the results or will it be a repeat of 1990? It is most likely that the results will be accepted as the NLD will be holding only a meagre 6.4% of the seats in the parliament and the regime wants the west to ease the sanctions as a quid pro quo for providing the political space for Suu Kyi and her party.

The international community has hailed the conduct of the elections and has welcomed the outcome. Calls for lifting of the sanctions have been made by ASEAN and other countries.

The Results

The by-election results for the 45 seats were officially announced by the Union Election Commission on 03 April 2012.

 

Seats won

  Lower House Upper House State/Regional Assemblies
NLD (contested-44)

37

4

2

Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP)

1

Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)

1

Total

37

6

2

Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD

Aung San Suu Kyi won from the Kawhmu Constituency by securing 55,902 votes as against her near rival Dr. Soe Min of USDP who won 9172 votes. For the first time in her career she will be a member of parliament of her country after two decades of political struggle.

In her victory speech to the crowd she hoped it will mark the beginning of a new era. She said “It is not so much of our triumph as a triumph of the people who have decided that they have to be involved in the political process of this country”.

While questioned on the speculation that she may be offered a role in the government she replied “I have no intention of leaving the parliament to which I have tried so hard to get into” but expressed her willingness to take on some kind of a role to resolve the country’s ethnic conflicts.

Myanmar (Burma)
Myanmar (Burma)

The NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested. The NLD lost only in the eastern Shan State where the local candidate had a mammoth support from the ethnic minorities of the area.

The NLD spokesman said that the NLD has vowed to take on three main challenges: the reform of the rule of law, amendment to the constitution, and building national reconciliation.

The NLD, considered no more relevant after the 2010 elections, proved emphatically, that its appeal still spans a wide cross-section of Myanmar’s society. It was heartening to see the presence of many young people involved in the political activity at the NLD. This augurs well for the 2015 elections if the NLD can maintain this momentum and build up on this success.

President Then Sein and the Government

President Thein Sein hailed the by-elections as positive and told reporters at the ASEAN summit in Phnon Penh (Cambodia) that “the election was held successfully”.

The Myanmar government, in a rare gesture and for the first time in the country’s history, allowed foreign observers and journalists to witness the poll. A media report indicates that a total of 159 international observers which included diplomats from Rangoon based embassies and election specialists from ASEAN, India, Japan, EU, UN and the US were there for this by-election.

Media reports indicate that despite repeated assurances of a free and fair poll, Myanmar authorities were involved in repeated obstructions on the campaign activities of the NLD, threats, harassment, vote buying and censorship. Suu Kyi was candid in a press conference to say “I don’t think we can consider it a genuinely free and fair election.”

Soe Aung writes (The Irrawaddy – April 4, 2012) “The quasi civilian administration has made small gestures calculated to generate maximum excitement in the international community with minimum cost of high ranking officials and their cronies”.

Ko Ko Hlaing, President’s chief adviser, acknowledged that the government was surprised by the sweeping victory of Suu Kyi in the parliamentary elections. He took credit to prove that Myanmar is capable of holding fair elections and it is time for the US to lift the sanctions. On Suu Kyi’s rapport with the President he said that she had adopted a conciliatory approach to co-operate with the government while exercising her right to indulge freely in her party political activities.

Reactions of the International Community

USA: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while congratulating Aung San Suu Kyi on her election to the parliament and the government reformers said “This is an important step in the country’s transformation”. She added that US would continue to press hard for further reform and a cut off in military ties between Myanmar and North Korea.

The Obama administration has said that it would soon nominate an ambassador to Myanmar and ease some travel and financial restrictions. The US will also open an office of the US Agency for International Development in Burma. US Senator John McCain has called upon the US to “work with its international partners to begin the process of easing sanctions on Burma”. The US State Department said that it has adopted “cautions optimism” on the land slide victory of NLD and expected the government to honour the results of the by elections.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has invited Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin for bilateral talks in Washington, claims a senior White House official (The Irrawaddy 06 April 2012).

China: China had sent three observers to monitor the by-election. The by-election in Myanmar was scantily covered in the official media and by the news agencies. However reporters from several major Chinese outlets had come to Myanmar prior to the elections. “With such changes happening inside Burma, China’s biggest effort was to preserve a position of non-interference” said Zhao Gancheng, Director of South Asia Centre at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies. While welcoming the lifting of international sanctions imposed on Myanmar he added that “if US and other Western nations use these events to serve American geopolitical strategic interests, this will have a negative effect on Chinese relations with Burma”.

India: India welcomed the successful conduct of by-elections in Myanmar on April 1, 2012. India had sent senior officials from the election commission and journalists from the official media as observers for the by-election.

While congratulating the Myanmar Election Commission and the Government and people of Myanmar, the external affairs press release said that India remains committed to extending all possible assistance and support to the process of national reconciliation and the further strengthening of democracy in Myanmar.

In this regard, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision to visit Myanmar in May 2012 is appropriate.

ASEAN: The ASEAN agreed to back Myanmar’s call for the EU to lift sanctions on the country. Cambodia, the current chair of the group, praised Myanmar’s democratic progress. ASEAN Secretary General said that election observers reported a high turn out of voters, adding the elections “foster Burma’s ongoing democratic reforms”.

European Union: The EU is putting its sanctions against Burma up for review on April 23, 2012.

News Analysis

It was expected that the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi will win a majority of the seats it contests but the sweeping victory (43 out of 44 seats contested) might have surprised many including President Thein Sein, his regime and perhaps even the NLD.

The big question is whether the results will be honoured and Suu Kyi and NLD will take their place in the parliament in June 2012 or will it be a repeat of 1990? The results will be honoured this time primarily as the easing of the economic sanctions depends on this and secondly the less than seven percent of the parliamentary seats (43) for the opposition (NLD) will not affect the dominance of the USDP led government. Besides this will lend credibility and legitimacy to the ongoing reform process.

The by-elections cannot be considered free and fair as was assured by the Election Commission time and again. The campaigning of NLD has been repeatedly obstructed for various reasons and more often under the garb of security. Besides there were instances of widespread irregularities, threats, harassment, advance voting, vote-buying and censorship. It is creditable for the NLD to succeed against these odds.

Unlike in the November 2010 elections, the political awareness, the enthusiasm and the participation in the electoral process of the people has been the high point of this by-election even though it was limited to a few areas of the country.

President Thein Sein also seems to be in unenviable situation. He has opened up to Suu Kyi by giving her the political space and she will be there in the parliament giving her advice and views as leader of the opposition. On the other hand he has his erstwhile colleagues from the Army who have enjoyed power over the last five decades and have been resisting these reforms (if not openly). He has to perform a balancing act till he finishes his term in 2015.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who was written off by analysts after the 2010 elections, has demonstrated her perseverance, played her cards well at the right time, and succeeded at an opportune moment. She has said that she does not at all regret having taken part (in the elections).

She has presently adopted a reconciliatory mood and has shown her willingness to work with other parties. She may also have to bide time till 2015 to reinforce her position in the parliament with an overwhelming majority. To bring the army and the former rulers on her side, she may have to assure them that there will be no retribution and past cases may not be reopened.

The expectations from Suu Kyi are very high and the challenges are formidable.

With such a meagre number of her representatives in the parliament, will she able to influence the ruling USDP filled with the former generals of the military junta?
How does she propose to achieve her three point agenda of the rule of the law, amending the constitution and building national reconciliation?

The by-elections may be a turning point in the history of Myanmar. The people and the international community are with her to help Myanmar become a democracy.

SAAG

SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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