New democracy demands unleashed

New democracy demands unleashed

Millions of Myanmar voters went to the polls last Sunday to voice their overwhelming support for democracy and their opposition to the military's involvement in politics. Throughout the country, people queued patiently and peacefully -- sometimes for up to two hours in the hot sun -- to mark their ballot papers in the polling stations.

The outcome was predictable: the governing National League for Democracy (NLD) led by their iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was returned to power, but with an even greater majority in parliament than their landslide victory five years ago. And while a handful of ethnic political parties did win seats, it was not as many as was expected.

The NLD now has an unassailable majority in the national parliament -- winning some 80% of the seats in both upper and lower houses -- with the former military-aligned party the United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) humiliated less than a score of seats, and several ethnic parties picking up the rest of the seats contested. Of course the military still appoints 25% of the seats in all parliaments, but still the NLD will comfortably form the next government and elect the president. The NLD also now has absolute majorities in 12 of the 14 state and regional parliaments -- with only Rakhine and Shan state avoiding the "Red tidal wave".

While it was a devastating endorsement of the ruling party, it was also a deafening appeal to the country's political leaders not to backtrack on the country's democratic transition, to further strengthen political and economic reforms and to adopt more inclusive policies as a whole. It is a call to ensure economic reform and development continues, perhaps with renewed pace.

"We voted NLD, because we believe that it is the only party so far that can bring the country together and establish real democracy," Aung Min Tun, a 30-year old English teacher told the Bangkok Post as he came out of a polling station in Mandalay. "But we also see the NLD as the only party that can and will change the Constitution, introduce much needed educational reform and further economic liberalisation."

These views were echoed right across the country, by more than 20 voters interviewed by the Bangkok Post after they voted. "We are voting to make the country more democratic and more developed; and able to create a safe and better future for all citizens," said Chaw Thinzar Tun, an 18-year old medical student in Southern Shan state. "So we voted NLD because there is currently no other party better than this to ensure human rights and strengthen democracy," she told the Bangkok Post.

Most voters interviewed were of the same opinion: the need for constitutional change, unity, peace and reconciliation -- and a total rejection of the military's role in the country's political area: "The key issue for me in this election was democracy, and perhaps more importantly, I do not want a return to a military-led regime," Shwe Yee Saw Myint, a 31-year-old communications consultant based in Yangon, told the Bangkok Post emphatically.

Euphoric crowds gathered outside the NLD headquarters in Yangon and the capital Nay Pyi Taw. As the extent of the NLD's victory became increasingly apparent, the throng became even more excited and delirious.

Most analysts and commentators like Zeya Thu, renown Myanmar commentator and CEO of the Voice magazine -- believe the election results reflected a unique and emotional mixture of hero-worship, anti-military sentiment, the absence of any formidable political opposition in many parts of Myanmar and the Covid crisis. For weeks, there have been concerns, especially within the ruling party, that many voters may not turn out to cast their ballots because of apathy and the risk posed by the Covid pandemic. "Many people who previously considered staying at home to avoid the Covid responded to Aung San Suu Kyi's heartfelt appeal to them last week when she told them voting was more important than Covid [for the future of the country]."

But the last straw was when the military issued a statement [early last week] warning the government to take responsibility for the mistakes of the much-criticised Union Election Commission that the government had appointed -- which was seen as a thinly veiled threat to justify military intervention, according to Mr Thu.

"The most important issue of this election is to support the civilian parties in parliament -- of which the NLD is foremost -- to win a parliamentary majority in order to resist a civilian-military alliance being formed," said Su Su Zaw, a 19-year old university student and first-time voter in Mandalay. "We had to come out and support the NLD against a potential military 'take-over'. The non-elected soldiers have no place in parliament. And I strongly think the military should stop meddling in Myanmar politics," she told the Bangkok Post.

But it may yet turn out to be something of a "pyrrhic victory", warns William Maung, an independent business and financial consultant based in Yangon. "Voting for the NLD this time round was like an automated response: there were no alternatives and the public willingly fell behind the NLD because of the Covid crisis, their hatred of the military, the lack of any other political alternatives, and the desperate need for continued political and economic reform," he told the Bangkok Post.

This overwhelming support for the NLD is rooted in Myanmar culture, he argued. "To understand Sunday's vote, it is necessary to understand Myanmar's hero-worship and the irresistible pull of supporting the 'winner'. As long as its party leader [Aung San Suu Kyi] is alive and active in the country's politics -- no matter what happens -- people will vote for the NLD," he said.

"People still believe in the bottom of their hearts that the Lady is the only one who can stop the country from becoming a dictatorship," according to Mr Maung. But there are many analysts and commentators who fear that this overwhelming electoral success will strengthen the authoritarian tendencies within the party. "We are heading for a one-party dictatorship," warned the Chin activist and spokesperson for the Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD) after the NLD's electoral success in 2015. The fear -- amongst activists and civil society -- is that these election results will reinforce this tendency in the future.

"The landslide win for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD means they are still supported even after all their failure to protect and defend minorities, and are allowed to continue what they have been doing," said prominent activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi. The NLD "becoming a giant party with no good oppositions is what worries me the most", she earlier said on Twitter.

This lack of checks and balances in parliament worries many voters, activists and politicians alike. "Although I am a Kachin, I voted for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) because I would like to strengthen the checks and balance mechanism in the Hluttaws [parliament] -- which has not happened under the previous two governments," said Yaung Htang Langjaw,­ a 25-year-old freelance translator based in the Shan city of Lashio.

"Now the NLD has been returned as the government -- with the trust of the public -- I expect the government to find a solution to the country's civil war, ensure the rights of the minorities are protected, and vigorously protect the freedom of expression right across the country," she told the Bangkok Post.

Ethnic-based political parties did draw votes away in some areas, especially in Karenni, Mon, Rakhine and Shan states. Many ethnic people in the country's periphery feel sidelined by the central government -- which is dominated by the Bamar -- and pursued arrogant policies that have further alienated them.

Some analysts believe that despite its victory, the NLD should reach out to ethnic parties and open a dialogue on their role in politics and state administration.

"It would be a positive gesture for national reconciliation if the NLD reached out to ethnic parties for government posts, including possible appointments as Chief Ministers" said Zaw Naing, a prominent Myanmar commentator and CEO of Mandalay Technology.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

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