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Myanmar Just Had An Historic Election. But Will The Military Ever Give Up Power?

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The National League for Democracy (NLD), an opposition party helmed by famed Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is the clear frontrunner in historic elections in Myanmar. Sunday’s election was the country’s freest and fairest in a quarter century, and an estimated 80 percent of the country’s 30 million voters took to the polls.

“NLD is representative of the people,” Than Win, 57, said in a tea-shop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The country is home to more than 92,000 refugees from Myanmar, many of whom are looking to the election results for a sign that the country has changed.

“If NLD wins,” he said, “I will return to Myanmar.”

Will ‘The Lady’ Be Strong-Armed?

With outside observers monitoring polling stations and the top military brass promising to respect the electoral outcome, the vote marks a monumental period for Myanmar.

Even so, anxiety about whether the Southeast Asian nation’s long-dominant military establishment will cede power to the opposition party runs high — and with good reason.

Many of Suu Kyi’s supporters fear that she will be barred from power, even if her party wins at the polls.

A 2008 constitutional provision drafted by the military effectively bans the popular opposition figure from serving as president. The provision stipulates that those with close familial ties to foreign nationals cannot assume the country’s top post. Many believe the rule was created to undermine Suu Kyi, whose two sons and late husband are British nationals. Suu Kyi hit back against the provision by saying that she will occupy a position “above the president” if her party wins.

That isn’t the only hurdle Suu Kyi will have to mount.

The military — which ran Myanmar until 2011 — guaranteed itself a quarter of all seats in this election. That means that the armed forces will maintain legislative veto power over changes in the country, including any changes to its constitution.

“The Burmese public has long suffered under military dictatorship,” said Ko Ko Lwin, 33, who fled from Yangon to Kuala Lumpur to access fair work opportunities during the economic hardship borne under military rule. “We don’t like that 25 percent of all seats go to the military — it has to change. Currently, the rules are not fair.”

Although nominally civilian, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) party is comprised of many former members of the military junta. The party, which promised liberalization and democratic reform, has left many in Myanmar disillusioned by what they see as deliberately slow progress.

“We’ve already lived under the military — this government hasn’t changed anything for the public. We choose democracy,” said Than Win. “We choose NLD,”

But Myanmar’s military leaders have disregarded popular opinion before.

Suu Kyi’s NLD party won a majority of the vote in the 1990 elections, but the military stepped in and placed the
pro-democracy icon under house arrest instead of offering a peaceful transfer of power.

Kept From The Polls

Rights’ activists have reason to believe that the electoral process has been too marred by voter irregularities to represent the people’s will this time around. Although championed for its turn towards democracy, the outcome of the election speaks to both how far Myanmar has come and how far it has to go before it can hold truly free and far elections.

“This is not a legal election,” said Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia. “There is discrimination on the voter registration list.”

Comprised of Muslims of South Asian descent, Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya population is among its most disenfranchised groups.

Rohingya are technically stateless, since the government of Myanmar considers them illegal immigrants, even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations. As many as 1.3 million Rohingya were effectively barred from voting this weekend despite being able to vote in previous elections.

Some members of the broader Muslim community, which makes up 5 percent of the population, boycotted the election in protest of the exclusion of Rohingya voters. Suu Kyi’s party has also been criticized for failing to put forward Muslim candidates over fears of rising ultra-nationalist Buddhist sentiment stoked by groups like Ma Ba Tha.

New Democratic Country?

Many of NLD’s supporters trust Suu Kyi, who is simply called “The Lady” by many of her supporters, to forge an inclusive government once she wins at the polls. In reality, her party has capitalized on the need for change without detailing what that might mean for the country’s ethnic minorities. In the weeks preceding the election, opposition party vans raced through Myanmar’s largest city, broadcasting a jubilant NLD campaign song that speaks to its fight for democracy: “The dictatorship will have to end totally / Go, go, go, go! / We will march ‘til we arrive to a new democratic country.”

Many ethnic minorities share the desire for change, even if it stems from an imperfect system.

Last month, Myanmar’s election commission revoked votes in some ethnic minority strongholds, chiefly in some 600 village tracts that are home to mainly Shan and Kachin ethnic minorities. The commission justified the move by citing security concerns, although many see it as an attempt to keep minorities from the polls.

The government cancelled voting in the area just after signing a ceasefire agreement with rebels from restive provinces, including the Karen National Union, whose struggle against the central government spans more than 60 years. Notably absent from the peacemaking process were groups the government continues to battle, including members of the country’s Wa and Kachin minorities.

Despite the restrictions on ethnic minorities, many who have longed for change see the election as a new political dawn.

Among them is 62-year-old Saw Soe Myint, an ethnic Karen who now lives in Malaysia. The NLD supporter and registered voter visited Myanmar’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur to cast his ballot, only to learn his name did not appear on the voter registration list.

Despite the alarm over being excluded from casting his ballot, Myint’s hope was buoyed by the possibility of seeing a new political order for the country.

“I never worry,” he told ThinkProgress. “I have prayed a long time for this change.”

This article originally appeared at ThinkProgress.

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Published in Malaysia Myanmar ThinkProgress