COM 01/2016

Myanmar’s Democrats Face the Future

Dr. Nicholas Farrelly, Director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala, a website established in 2006 on Southeast Asian affairs.


When Myanmar went to the polls on 8 November 2015 expectations were high that a free-and-fair election would deliver a thumping endorsement of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Her party campaigned hard, across the length- and-breadth of the country, with a message of hope and change. It insisted that only NLD leadership could complete the half- finished business of democratization. Even though the popularity of the democratic icon was never in doubt, there were big questions about the quality of the vote and the potential for the country’s first-past-the-post voting system to deliver a patchwork of results.

With no robust opinion polling to judge the national mood, analysts were forced to give their best guesses about who would do well. The consensus was that the NLD would win a majority of the seats in the popular vote, but that the Union Solidarity and Development Party – a reincarnation of the old military dictatorship – would retain some of its influence. As the patron of the post- authoritarian transition, the USDP enjoyed all the advantages of incumbency and had clear support among senior army figures. At pre- election rallies, USDP powerbrokers called on the people to support the party that had brought an end to direct military rule. Given the public resentment of the dictatorship’s wasted opportunities, it was always a weak campaign pitch.

In the end, the NLD obliterated the USDP on polling day, and also made large gains in most ethnic areas of the country. Across the spectrum of Myanmar life – from the mountains to the marshlands, in majority heartlands and lonely minority tracts – the NLD enjoyed red-hot support. The message from voters was clear: Aung San Suu Kyi’s democrats are the people’s choice for the next phase of Myanmar’s development. For now, the USDP has been reduced to modest representation in all of the country’s 16 legislatures. It may never recover. USDP politicians who might have imagined another comfortable term in Naypyitaw will be forced to look for alternative employment. It is a new generation from the NLD who will be taking their seats.

These  freshly-elected  NLD  figures, most of whom are relatively unknown, even to their own constituents, face an uphill struggle. They inherit economic, social, political, constitutional, legal, environmental and strategic problems that would test even the most effective government. In Myanmar’s case five recent decades of military rule have starved energy and creativity, leaving a policy void too often filled by opportunism and erratic management. It has only been in the past few years that more aggressive and successful responses to some age-old problems have begun to change the equations. Yet much of the hard work remains to be done, especially along festering ethnic and religious fault lines.

The partial Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed in October 2015 is a good example. While eight of the country’s ethnic armed groups signed up to the government’s deal, the most powerful armies – the United Wa State Army, the Shan State Army – North and the Kachin Independence Army

– opted out of the agreement. They wanted to wait and negotiate with  whoever  won the election. That now means the NLD will have substantial responsibility, in the months and years ahead, for creating more peaceful interactions with these key ethnic groups. The NLD’s resounding popular mandate will help their chances. It is also relevant that at the November poll ethnic parties – long touted as serious competitors to the national political parties in some local areas

– fared poorly. Most struggled to pick up just a few State legislature seats, and only 56 representatives from ethnic parties will need to make the long trek to Naypyitaw in 2016. Most ethnic constituencies will be represented by the NLD.

For its part, the NLD exceeded expectations, securing around 60 per cent of seats in the Union Assembly and over 50 percent in the 14 State and Region legislatures. This means it will have a healthy buffer in the Union Assembly, the joint  houses  of the national legislature. As expected, in the major urban centres – Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw – it dominated the vote. What was more surprising was its overwhelming support in rural areas and remote ethnic townships. There was only one major exception to this nationwide pattern: Rakhine State, where the Arakan National Party bested its NLD and USDP opponents. It won 22 seats from this region in the Union Assembly and 23 in the Rakhine State legislature.

Rakhine State will matter for other reasons too. It hosts a long list of economic, social and political challenges, and Aung San Suu Kyi will not be able to avoid some tough conversations. There remains great contention, and aggravation, between Muslim and Buddhist groups, most acutely in the townships of northern Rakhine State. The exclusion of Rohingya and many other Muslims from participating in the 2015 election also blights what was, in most other respects, an impressively handled process. Because  of  the  electoral  mathematics, the NLD has been determined to avoid antagonizing Buddhist nationalist forces. If it ends up leading the government from 2016 then it will need a new strategy. Such a big and potentially dangerous social cleavage will require Aung San Suu Kyi’s direct intervention if she hopes to avoid gifting her enemies another opportunity to undermine her control.

The armed forces, which have enjoyed decades of political primacy, will also need to adjust their expectation after the NLD’s triumph. Some older-style authoritarians may grumble that they are surrendering too much, too quickly, but it appears that President Thein Sein and the Commander- in-Chief of the Armed Forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, are both prepared to support the peaceful transfer of power. Uniformed military personnel will still take 25 percent of the seats in all the legislatures, a constitutional handbrake that cannot be dismantled straightaway. There are also the constitutional obstacles to Aung San Suu Kyi holding the presidency. She has, for good measure, reminded the Myanmar people that she plans to be “above the President”, perhaps in a non-constitutional role of her own creation.

After so many decades of political paralysis, and the recent spurt of exuberance about a “disciplined democracy”, a genuinely democratic system is unchartered territory for Myanmar. With the legislative vote for the President likely to take place in early 2016 there is still time for more push-and- shove. What seems likely, however, is that the USDP and its supporters in the military are committed to relinquishing much of their power and transferring control to the NLD. Millions of people have fought, for generations, for this outcome. Their expectations are understandably high. But they will all need to make prudent decisions if this historic political moment is to generate long-term national success.

This article was originally published in Italian (“I democratici birmani e le sfide del  futuro”)  in  Relazioni  internazionali  e International political economy del Sud- Est asiatico (RISE), Torino World Affairs Institute, January 2016.