The 2015 election marks a new dawn for Myanmar and should be a substantive step towards democracy. But how will the new government work with the military?
Myanmar’s election has successfully taken place without a major hitch let alone violence and conflict – a remarkable achievement considering the country’s protracted civil war and decades of political confrontation.
The resounding victory for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) represents a clear expression of the enormous popular support for the NLD and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Not only was the outcome to the satisfaction of most people, inside and outside the country, but the processes were also deemed by most of the 11,000 or more election monitors, to have been “free and fair” and credible.
With more than 30 million voters, the 2015 election was a major undertaking by any measure. Its success means that the years of efforts and dedication by parties, candidates, support staff and the media have been vindicated, and the result is a new government with its legitimacy confirmed, unlike the outcome of the flawed and fraudulent 2010 elections.
Before the elections, many problems with voter registration lists were discovered. A number of complaints about voting procedures on polling day have been lodged with Myanmar’s Election Commission, but it is doubtful that any errors would have made much difference to the results.
This is not just Myanmar’s first “free and fair” election in 25 years; it is Myanmar’s first free and fair and openly contested nationwide election ever. Even at the time of the 1990 elections, in which the newly-formed NLD won a clear majority of seats, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, was not a candidate, and was not allowed to campaign.
In the 2010 elections, when she was again in detention, the NLD chose not to participate, although a splinter group from the party did stand candidates and won some seats. It was not until by-elections for only 45 seats in 2012, that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD changed their policy, contested the elections, and won most of the available seats convincingly.
So, more than any other single event, the 2015 election marks a “new dawn” for Myanmar (according to the government newspaper) and should be a substantive step towards “democracy” in Myanmar. The widespread enthusiasm and excitement that the election results generated is testimony to the hopes and aspirations of the ordinary Myanmar people that the NLD government will be called upon to meet in due course.
The outcome certainly marks a clear break from decades of military rule in Myanmar, but leaves open the all-important question of how the new government, when it is sworn in early in 2016, will work with the powerful Myanmar army. (The army tried to avoid being directly involved in the elections, and military candidates for the pro-government Union Solidarity Development Party had resigned from the army beforehand.)
This will be a major ongoing challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi, but it should not be assumed that this will necessarily mean outright conflict between the two. Since NLD representatives headed by Aung San Suu Kyi entered the national parliament in May 2012, they have been working directly with representatives of the army occupying the 25 per cent of seats reserved for the army in the parliament.
Aung San Suu Kyi herself was invited by Commander–in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to attend Armed Forces Day celebrations in 2013 and 2014. She has also had separate discussions with the Commander-in-Chief. Generally, Suu Kyi has never been hostile towards the army; rather she has publicly spoken of her admiration and respect for them.
Earlier this year, Min Aung Hlaing reciprocated by stating publicly that the army would be able to work with her; indeed, many observers believe that some elements of the army support the NLD.
Some immediate issues directly involving the army await Aung San Suu Kyi and the new government. First of all, will be the matter of appointing ministers to be responsible for national security (Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs). Under the current 2008 Myanmar constitution, a relic from the now-abolished military regime, these ministers are supposed to be held by members of the army, and would be nominated by the Commander-in-Chief.
Second, is the ongoing insurgencies with ethnic groups in the north (Kachin State and parts of Shan State) where the army is still fighting armed opposition groups that have not signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement that was concluded just before the elections.
Restoring peace in these areas will be quite a challenge for the new government, which will face domestic pressures – especially from ethnic parties, whose support might be crucial for the NLD – to make better progress.
What Suu Kyi can accomplish in relation to the Rohingya also remains unclear. Despite the expectations of the international community on the Rohingya, this may not be a problem for which an early resolution is achievable for a new Myanmar government.
But with Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD already securing major gains at the ballot, the world and the Myanmar people wait in anticipation to see what strides forward the country now takes.
This article is published in collaboration between Policy Forum and New Mandala, the premier website for analysis on Southeast Asia’s politics and society.