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Myanmar By-Elections: A Curtain Raiser – Analysis


By C. S. Kuppuswamy

“This is a very dangerous attitude to think that any politician is too high up to be involved in the basis of parliamentary democracy. I think we all have to start with at least a sense of humility” — Aung San Suu Kyi in defence of her decision to contest said that it is in no way beneath her dignity to do so.


This is only the second election in the country in the past two decades. The last nation wide election held in November 2010 was condemned as totally flawed and rigged.

Myanmar (Burma)
Myanmar (Burma)

Though the outcome of this by election will not in any way alter the equations in the government dominated by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in all the central and regional assemblies, much heat has been generated in the run up to the election for two reasons. First, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi which had boycotted the 2010 elections is participating and Suu Kyi herself is contesting from a constituency (Kawhmu Township) in South Yangon. Two, the Western countries have made the holding of free and fair election as a condition for easing the economic sanctions imposed by them.

This election will also be unique in that the Myanmar government has agreed to allow ASEAN, the US and the EU to send observers for the by-election. It will be the first time that the country has permitted international observers for an election.


Date of Election: Sunday, 01 April 2012

Vacant Seats: 48 (40 for the lower house 6 for the senate and 2 for regional assemblies). These seats have been vacated by law makers who have become ministers or have been appointed on Government commissions.

Political Parties: 17 political parties (11 old and 6 newly registered) including NLD will take part

Candidates: 176 (168 from 17 registered political parties and 8 independents)

Myanmar Legislative Set-up

Lower House: 440 seats (330-elected and 110 (25%) nominated from the military)

Upper House (Senate): 224 seats (168 elected and 56 nominated from the military)

States/Divisions: 14 regional assemblies (7 for the divisions and 7 for the ethnic states). The number of seats vary in each state/ division though 25% are nominated form the military in all assemblies.

The USDP is dominating both the central and regional assemblies by holding 79% of the seats in the lower house, 77% in the upper house and an overall 75% in the 14 regional assemblies.

Aung San Suu Kyi

On her decision to participate in the by election, U Thant Myint U remarked “There’s an element of gamble and risk for her”.

The gamble is perhaps in trusting the president and the government for its positive attitude as many feel that she is being used for improving relations with the western nations and lifting of the economic sanctions. The risk is, with great expectations from her, under pressure, and with the wide range of issues that need attention, she may not be able to achieve much especially if she is given a less important portfolio (if at all she is inducted into the government).

She has assumed the post of the Chairperson of the party in mid-January and since then she has engaged herself in the battle with full confidence.

From the time the campaigning was permitted she has been on the streets every day moving from one meeting or rally to the other and to most constituencies across the country including the ethnic areas where elections are to be held. Suu Kyi has been drawing huge crowds for all her meetings and even the routes followed by her motorcade have been lined up with huge crowds waiting to have a glimpse of her.

Suu Kyi has indicated her priorities as promoting legislative and constitutional reforms in the parliament, bringing peace and national reconciliation and creating job opportunities.

Suu Kyi has also been out spoken in pointing out, the voter registration problems, the unfair means adopted by the government backed parties in campaigning, discrepancies in voter lists (potential voters left out and dead people on the rolls), inaccessibility of proper venues for the NLD to hold rallies and defacing of NLD campaign posters.

While addressing a crowd at Lashio, a town close to the Chinese border in the north, she also exposed the tactics adopted by the government backed parties to threaten the Chinese and minority voters “that their business could be harmed if NLD won” because of its leanings towards the western nations. She clarified that Myanmar had good relations with China and will continue to do so for mutual benefit and that NLD will follow the same policy.

Leaflets blaming Suu Kyi for supporting the sanctions against Myanmar are also being distributed in a clandestine manner to voters in Kawhmu township where she is contesting as well as in some other constituencies

National League for Democracy (NLD)

The NLD is contesting 47 of the 48 seats available in the by-elections.

The NLD headquarters in Yangon is buzzing with people in a frenzy of high activity in view of the ensuing elections. The party has brought out T-shirts and key chains bearing the image of Suu Kyi and her father. The party has also started publishing a fortnightly news letter.

Since early February 2012 the NLD has launched a massive membership drive to bring the membership to around 500,000 which is still far behind the 1 million members the party claims to have had during the 1990 elections.

On 20 February 2012 the NLD held a press conference to address the regime’s restrictions on its campaigning activities. The election commission subsequently lifted all restrictions on the party’s campaign activities according to a news agency report.

A media report also indicates that few members of parliament who joined the breakaway faction (National Democratic Force) NDF in the November 2010 elections have rejoined the party.

The NLD, to ward off the criticisms levelled in the past for reluctance to promote younger members, has selected a number of young party members as candidates which include a HIV/AIDS activist, a private tutor, a well-known rapper, a few of the CEC members and a few released under the recent amnesty.

Other Political Parties

The regime backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will be contesting all the 48 seats. The party claims to have a membership of 25 million in the country. The National Democratic Force (NDF) and the National Unity Party (NUP) plan to contest in about 20 constituencies. A newly formed party New National Democracy Party is contesting for 3 seats and there also 8 independents in the fray. Some old parties who have renewed their registration and some new parties are planning to contest only in the 2015 elections.

President Thein Sein and the Government

President Thein Sein and his government are making the best of efforts to make the by-elections free and fair. Some of the measures taken are:

  • On 16 February the Election Commission announced that each of the 17 political parties would be granted a 15 minute slot on state radio and TV to present their political views subject to the transcript being submitted seven days before and approved.
  • On 20 February 2012, in a very prompt response to the NLD’s objections, the Election Commission announced that it would lift all restrictions on the party’s campaign activities.
  • On 28 February the Election Commission rejected an appeal by Tin Yi, from the Party for Unity and Peace, against Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidacy for the by election.
  • An AP report indicates that Myanmar had invited ASEAN to send five observers and 18 parliamentarians (two from each country of this grouping) to witness the vote along with media representatives
  • Media reports of 21 & 22 March, 2012 indicate that Myanmar has invited observers from US and EU also.

There are some negative reports on actions presumably initiated at the governmental level, such as civil servants told not to welcome Suu Kyi while visiting the capital, instructing police personnel to turn their backs when her convoy passes, not allotting prestigious venues for her rallies, holding last minute examinations to prevent students from attending her rallies and denying permission for her rallies in certain areas for security reasons.

Citing security concerns, the government has said that there will be no polling in 39 out of 110 polling stations in Phakant region of Kachin State where skirmishes between the government forces and the Kachins continue to take place.

News Analysis

The Western nations, particularly the US and the UN have repeatedly indicated that the conduct of the by-election in a free and fair manner is an acid test of the Myanmar government’s commitment to reforms.

The Western nations despite their positive attitude towards the ongoing reforms are waiting for the outcome of this by-election for lifting of the sanctions.

Despite repeated assurances from the President and the Election Commission for a free and fair poll and transparency, several complaints on campaigning and some serious allegations attributed to the government officials and agencies have been reported.

The Government has perhaps encouraged the participation of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD with the motive of gaining legitimacy and credibility to this election. Aung San Suu Kyi, while well aware of this fact, has still taken up this opportunity, to revive the fortunes of her party and has answered the call of the people.

Even if Suu Kyi comes out successful with 40 or more seats in this election it will not alter the balance of power in the current parliament. It will be a symbolic victory and act as a spring board for the 2015 elections.

The poll is turning out to be a landmark in the country’s transition to democracy.

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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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