When I first visited Burma back in 2003, there were ominous blood-red billboards posted throughout the country that said:
The People’s Desire
- Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views
- Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
- Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
- Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy
The Orwellian sign was printed daily in state-controlled newspapers. It was posted in government offices, schools and universities. It was inescapable.
If that was a sign of the times, November 8 provided another one. In the first general election in 25 years, the people got to express their true desire: to get the military boot off their backs.
In astonishing numbers, the people of Burma, renamed Myanmar by the military, voted overwhelming and decisively for the party of Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi. By the end of the day, results showed that Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had won about 78 percent of the seats in the combined houses of Parliament. The NLD won 387 seats, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) took a mere 41. The ruling party even lost seats in their grandiose capital city of Naypyidaw. As it turned out, many soldiers preferred the opposition party to their bosses.
The victory is more than enough for Suu Kyi and her party to control the majority of the Parliament—at long last. Suu Kyi and the NLD won 82 percent of the seats back in 1990, only to have the ruling generals ignore the results. The junta placed Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 out of the next 20 years and threw the rest of her party leaders into prison. Now those former political prisoners will be in charge.
Released from house arrest only five years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi has engineered a remarkable political comeback. She personally is the clear winner, despite months of complaining in the press about her autocratic leadership style and widespread concerns that the military would steal the elections. Millions of people jammed voting booths and filled the streets in support of change. They wore T-shirts and tattoos with Aung San Suu Kyi’s image. Many said in exit polls that they voted for the NLD candidates not so much because of who they were but simply because of “Mother Suu.” As one seasoned journalist remarked to the local Irrawaddy magazine, “They wanted a way out of this Hell, so they chose her.”
President Thein Sein, a former general, came to power following a rigged 2010 general election. He initially said he would not seek another five-year term for health reasons and then said he would if it was the will of the people. He warned that there had been “enough change.” The people disagreed. Since Thein Sein did not seek re-election to his seat in Parliament, his political career is probably over. At 70, he is the same age as Aung San Suu Kyi, but he has a pacemaker and now has a mandate to get some rest.
His record is mixed. At the beginning of his term, he liberalized the economy faster than anyone expected. He relaxed controls on the media, unions, and civic culture. As a result, Burma is on track to be the fourth-fastest growing economy in the world. Ford, Gap, Hilton, Dell, Cisco, and even Kentucky Fried Chicken have opened shop in what was once a pariah nation.
However, toward the end of his term, Thein Sein presided over a renewed crackdown on dissent. Ten journalists are behind bars. More than 400 protestors are awaiting trial, including dozens of students seeking more academic freedom. As the ballots were being counted, the students were on a hunger strike in prison. Thein Sein also stood by while religious violence against Muslims was stirred up. He detained more than 140,000 Rohingya Muslims in squalid camps.
On balance, historians will give him credit for managing the election process to completion and honoring the results. Thein Sein has congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi on for her victory and promised a smooth transition when he met with her. After years of trying to thwart Suu Kyi, one of his last acts will be playing De Klerk to her Mandela and handing over power.
Former General Than Shwe, who ruled Burma with a bloody fist for more than two decades, is believed to have been pulling strings behind the scenes to perpetuate military control and protect his family’s riches based on corrupt investments. Than Shwe is said to have serious organ failure, so his personal power is waning, but he put other protégés in positions of power in the military who may try to carry on his hardline ideas.
One of those protégés, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, was thought to have a good shot at the Presidency if the military party won. Though he acted coolly toward Aung San Suu Kyi in the past, the powerful army chief also congratulated her party and promised to respect the poll results. The question is, will the General share power going forward? The military still controls three of the most powerful ministries: defense, home affairs (which includes police forces), and border affairs. The military also is guaranteed 25 percent of seats in Parliament. Building bridges with those military elements will be essential for the NLD to move forward.
Another former general, Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, was rudely ejected from his position as head of the military party before the election. Once considered a potential President and ally of Suu Kyi, the powerful Speaker then suffered the additional indignity of losing his seat in Parliament to an NLD candidate. What’s unknown is whether he still has enough support to make a comeback of his own. He was the first leader to meet with Suu Kyi after the election and could be helpful during the next two-and-a-half months when the lame-duck Parliament will be in session. His support will be necessary to keep holdovers from making mischief by passing measures to benefit the military.
Even though Aung San Suu Kyi was overwhelmingly re-elected to her own seat in Parliament, she cannot lead the country as President. Section 59f of the military-rigged constitution specifically bars anyone with a foreign spouse or children with a foreign passport from service as President. By design, that rules out Suu Kyi because she was married to a British professor and their two children live abroad.
Yet as head of her party, Suu Kyi can definitely play the role of “kingmaker.” Since her party won majorities in both the upper and lower houses of Parliament, she will be able to determine two of the three nominees for President, with the military nominating the third. Thanks to her party’s new clout, one of her anointed candidates would then be elected President. Suu Kyi has raised some eyebrows by saying she will serve “above the President.” Presumably, she means the President will follow her lead on policy going forward as her designated regent, much as Sonia Gandhi influenced Indian leadership as head of the Congress Party. With all the adulation she has received from the crowds, Suu Kyi must be especially mindful to avoid Evita Syndrome.
The biggest guessing game at the moment is who Suu Kyi will anoint as the next President. One thing is for sure: It will be a loyal ally that she trusts completely. The new President then could pursue changes to the constitution, such as removing Section 436, which mandates a 75 percent approval by Parliament to amend the constitution. That would help speed further reforms.
The NLD now has the opportunity to prove it can govern the country. The new President will be able to appoint all chief ministers of the 14 regional governments. The NLD also will control most of the 14 state and regional parliaments. Working relationships will need to be built with the existing bureaucracies, a considerable challenge in itself.
In the days ahead, Suu Kyi will hold more meetings with outgoing military leaders. She has consistently said she will not take revenge on the military leaders who held her prisoner, mismanaged the economy, and carried out mass arrests, torture, and rape. She has studied the reconciliation process in Poland, the Czech Republic, and South Africa while under house arrest and envisions more of a velvet transition than a vengeful one.
Tough as the run-up to the election was, the Day After will be just a difficult. The military has left the NLD a country with widespread poverty and limited infrastructure. The additional hurdles include:
Achieving a realistic peace with ethnic groups. Ethic groups have been fighting for more autonomy and power-sharing for generations. After many months of a full-court press on negotiations, Thein Sein’s government managed to get only eight of the 15 rebel factions to sign a peace agreement. The ethnic groups historically have been leery of the ruling Burman majority and may remain so, since Suu Kyi is considered Burman like her father. However, she has long voiced support for the reconciliation process begun by her father with the Panglong agreement in 1947. Now she has the chance to finish the task.
Resolving the Rohingya issue. A recent report by Queen Mary University in London has documented that the Rohingya were systematically persecuted as part of a state-sponsored genocide under military rule. Suu Kyi dodged the Rohingya issue during the election, saying she hoped to be a mediator. Now she will have to find solutions. If she moves too fast and too far to address the human rights of the ostracized minority, she runs the risk of alienating her Buddhist base and triggering more violence and resistance from radical Buddhist elements. The influential monk Wirathu, who has inspired anti-Muslim campaigns, may be watching for opportunities to challenge the new administration.
Dealing with China. Since 2010, the Thein Sein government has made a conscious effort to distance itself from China’s potentially destabilizing dominance of Burma’s economy. Thein Sein’s government moved quickly to suspend work on the multibillion-dollar Myitsone Dam, which China was banking heavily on. Then the government courted countries like India, Japan, Thailand, and the United States to fill the investment gap.
Suu Kyi has shown a realpolitik view of China. She has maintained, “We have to get along with our neighbors whether we like it or not.”
That admission may prove a welcome change in Beijing. The Chinese have grown increasingly impatient with fighting with ethnic groups on the border and corruption in Burmese society. Suu Kyi was invited to a rare one-on-one with President Xi Jing Ping in the run-up to the election, marking the first time China has hosted an opposition leader. The challenge for Suu Kyi will be maintaining Burma’s independence while fostering a constructive relationship with China, which still leads in direct foreign investment in Burma. An early test will be resolving concerns about giant Chinese hydropower projects that threaten the Burmese environment.
Dealing with massive corruption. Despite some early talk about reining in corruption, it continued unabated under Thein Sein. A recent Global Witness report documented that the military and its cronies have hauled in the profits from a staggering $31 billion in jade trade. Before the election, Suu Kyi convinced some of the business moguls who made billions doing business with the military to support the NLD instead. Sure enough, some of the long-time cronies bragged that they voted for the NLD on November 8. Now that the elections have provided more legitimacy to “The Burma Spring,” international investors are poised to put more money into Burma. Will the military cronies use the opportunity to make more profits honestly or dishonestly?
The next three to four months are critical as the NLD races to assemble its talent and translate its policies into laws. The new members of Parliament will not take their seats until February and the President will assume power by the end of March.
In the meantime, those watching in the wings include the military’s Old Guard. The powerful 11-member National Defense and Security Council has the authority to appoint the Commander-in-Chief and holds tacit power over major decisions. The military has a solid majority of six seats on the council and could undermine the new President’s agenda. The Old Guard is well aware that a provision in the Constitution allows the military to resume control in the event of civil unrest. Will they foment opportunities to “rescue” the country and preserve “unity,” their usual excuses?
The United States has keen interest in monitoring the transition process as well. President Barack Obama was among the first to call Aung San Suu Kyi to congratulate her on her victory. Obama was roundly criticized for declaring premature success in 2012 after re-establishing relations with Burma. Critics were right: The Administration gave up too much of its “stick” by joining the stampede to relax economic sanctions. That meant the U.S. had less leverage to press for greater reforms. But unlike Norway and the European Union, the Administration suspended its remaining sanctions and reserved the right to re-instate them. Visa bans against corrupt associates of the military regime still remain in force.
Those bargaining chips are now on the table. American businesses have been complaining that the remaining sanctions are limiting their ability to compete. Pressure is growing for the Administration to recognize the election results and remove remaining barriers. But the State Department is right to say it is too early to forecast jettisoning all the sanctions. If the transition continues in an honest and orderly way, changes should be made in due time. The U.S. should stick to its principles.
There are few precedents to what the NLD is trying to accomplish. There has not been a peaceful transition to a truly democratic government since 1949, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, began assembling a cabinet after securing Burma’s independence from Great Britain. He was assassinated by political rivals before he could complete the process. History shows that subsequent administrations were hobbled by weak leaders who struggled to unite ethnic factions and fight Communist insurgencies. That internal weakness led to a military coup in 1962 and the series of regimes that held the country in bondage for nearly six decades. Burma became the “dark house on the block” that everyone avoided.
It was during that dark period of human rights violations that I came to know many brave people who joined the struggle to remove military control. One of them was Zin Mar Aung, who was thrown in prison as a college student. Her crime? Distributing poetry that had a political message. She was held in solitary confinement for ten years. When she got out, she founded the Yangon School of Political Science to train future leaders and set up an organization to preserve the environment. She likes to put flowers on the dash of her car because she didn’t get to see any for a decade.
Another was a young man named Nay Phone Latt. He was put in prison for four years. His crime? He used the Internet to smuggle out photos and videos to foreign journalists when the military brutally assaulted monks who were protesting the poverty imposed on the people. Nay Phone Latt was released in the 2010 amnesty as part of the “Burma Spring.” He went on to found a chapter of the international organization PEN in Rangoon to support freedom of expression. He’s been training young bloggers and leading a campaign against hate-speech on the internet. When prospects for a fair election looked dimmest a year ago, he encouraged his friends not to give up hope, saying, “Maybe there will be a magic show.”
He was right. Something miraculous did happen. Both Zin Mar Aung and Nay Phone Latt were elected members of Parliament on November 8. They are a reminder that the real winners in the election were the people of Burma. Those threatening red billboards should be gone for good.