Who have emerged as the real by-election winners?
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Who have emerged as the real by-election winners?

The victory of the main opposition National League for Democracy Party led by Aung San Suu Kyi should not come as a surprise despite some irregularities and the initial fear that the poll would not be free and fair.

The NLD won 43 out of the 44 parliamentary seats it contested in last Sunday's by-elections. The party now becomes the main opposition group in Myanmar's parliament despite having only around 5% of the total seats, according to an official statement by the nation's Election Commission.

Mrs Suu Kyi herself won the seat for Khawmu township, south of Yangon. The Nobel laureate will be able to take her rightful place in the legislative body 22 years after she recorded a landmark victory in the 1990 general elections - a result the military junta refused to honour.

"The success we are having is the success of the people," Mrs Suu Kyi said. "It is not so much our triumph as a triumph of the people who have decided that they have to be involved in the political process in this country."

It is Mrs Suu Kyi's iron will and principles that earned the support of the people. The 66-year-old and many other oppressed Myanmar people knew that to back down now would mean always to be discounted.

This victory, however, is only for a tiny 43 seats in a parliament where the military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) holds an enormous majority. Yet, it demonstrates the will of the people and has laid the groundwork for the NLD and Mrs Suu Kyi to prepare for the crucial 2015 general elections. The NLD, winner of the 1990 general elections by a landslide, made a pragmatic decision.

Indeed, this is a small step in Myanmar's long struggle for democracy where so much more still needs to be done. There is no magical cure for the country's ills to shoo away the former dictators and ex-junta generals who are still alive and kicking.

In June, when Myanmar resumes its parliamentary session, Mrs Suu Kyi will be sitting in the assembly for the first time and media attention will again focus on Myanmar. But it is too early to predict what comes next and how the political landscape of the nation will change.

A week before Sunday's by-elections, I met Upper House Speaker Khin Aung Myint in Nay Pyi Taw and he said that he was ready to welcome Mrs Suu Kyi to the legislature. Before the election, Mrs Suu Kyi visited parliament where she held meetings with both Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Myint.

During his meeting with Mrs Suu Kyi, Khin Aung Myint told her not to worry about the small presence of opposition seats. "I told her we would all support anything that would be good for the country and people," he said. When asked whether there had been any recent change in his attitude towards Mrs Suu Kyi, the former major-general replied that it would be wrong to think so. "If we regard Gen Aung San [the independence hero who founded the Myanmar army and was Mrs Suu Kyi's father] as our father, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is our sister. I have never badmouthed her. I see her as my sister," he explained.

Fine words indeed, but no one is sure how much truth there is in his remarks. It seems that only time will tell.

Of course, it remains uncertain whether the majority of MPs - overwhelmingly USDP members and military officers who are constitutionally safeguarded 25% of seats - are mentally prepared to welcome Mrs Suu Kyi and her NLD colleagues. On the other hand, the NLD will also find allies in parliament.

The NLD has vowed to take on three main challenges: the reform of the rule of law, amendment of the constitution and building national reconciliation. Nevertheless, it will need a majority of backing in parliament. Indeed, the real test will come very soon, with this looming parliamentary session gearing up to be an extremely exciting event.

What was interesting is that the NLD won four seats in Nay Pyi Taw, the country's new capital, which is supposed to be the stronghold of the military-backed government. Moreover, several armed forces family members in garrison towns in central Myanmar also voted for the NLD.

In any case, President Thein Sein knew that these by-elections were crucial for his government's credibility. Indeed, Thein Sein was not surprised to see the NLD winning most constituencies. He knew that widespread condemnation would follow if his USDP fixed the outcome and won a majority of seats as occurred in the 2010 general elections.

When I spoke to many senior officials in Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon, they told me that Thein Sein was sincere in his decisions to implement reforms although he faced many challenges as well as rivals who were now undermining his administration.

The military is always in the background with conservative and hardline groups within the government a real cause for concern. The potential showdown between Thein Sein and the ambitious Shwe Mann continues to make businessmen in Myanmar nervous.

Thein Sein could once again tell his rivals that he was correct to allow Mrs Suu Kyi to take part in the by-elections and enter parliament. The strategy is that it is better for the government to have Mrs Suu Kyi in parliament as Thein Sein does not want a second rate "puppet" opposition leader to challenge him.

One of his government colleagues told me during my second recent trip to Myanmar that many Western nations were encouraging alternative groups to contest the elections-creating an alternative force to counter Mrs Suu Kyi. But the government preferred a credible opposition leader in parliament instead.

In fact, many close to the President's Office told me that Thein Sein deserves kudos for holding relatively peaceful by-elections. It was his initiative to invite Mrs Suu Kyi to his palace and allow her to contest the ballot by amending election laws. Indeed, he promised to hold free and fair elections, although admitted some irregularities.

Election will be good for the economy

The election will certainly have benefits for the economy of this once isolated country. Foreign investors are ready to flock to Myanmar once sanctions are lifted and new investment laws are introduced. Many companies in neighbouring countries were paying close attention to the by-elections as they look to invest in the resource-rich country.

In late March, executives from oil and gas production companies from the East and West, attended a government-backed Yangon trade fair to look at what was on offer. They are expecting the European Union to lift sanctions soon and will invest in the lucrative oil and gas sectors.

However, many are still holding off putting money in Myanmar due to restrictions on capital flow, the lack of a developed stock exchange, an untested legal environment and rudimentary infrastructure, according to a recent article by Bloomberg news agency.

Myanmar has suddenly started attracting flocks of tourists, curious visitors and people with goodwill who want to visit one of the poorest yet most enchanting countries in the world. In future months, many flights to Myanmar will be fully booked and hotels filled to the rafters.

A day after the election, Myanmar's Central Bank embarked on a managed float of the national currency. A rate of 818 kyat to the US dollar was set on Monday - a more realistic figure than the previous tethered rate of 6.4 kyat - which is hoped will make the isolated economy attractive to foreign investors.

Thein Sein is also preparing to travel to Japan in a bid to lure investors and resume overseas assistance. He is expecting the EU to lift sanctions soon. The United States will soon ease restrictive measures.

The EU has indicated it is looking at easing sanctions imposed on Myanmar in the mid-1990s over the regime's long history of human rights abuses, and foreign investors are lining up to do business in the country. The body is holding a meeting this month to review its policy of sanctions and it is expected that many of these will be lifted with the retention of an arms embargo.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton congratulated Myanmar in the wake of the weekend elections. Since the government freed several prominent political prisoners in January the US has announced it is to restore full diplomatic relations and will soon send a new ambassador to Myanmar. And the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has already called for other countries to lift sanctions.

There are several burning issues remaining to be resolved in Myanmar, however. The protracted war in Kachin State, abuses towards ethnic minorities in border regions and the remaining political prisoners still locked up for no just reason.

While some eager investors will immediately rush to embrace Myanmar, many more will remain cautiously optimistic and hopeful for more positive changes to come. The people of Myanmar who want to see change deserve a better future. Thein Sein, Mrs Suu Kyi and all who voted in the by-elections are the real winners.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy Magazine, http://www.irrawaddy.org.

Aung Zaw

Founder and editor of the Irrawaddy Magazine

Founder and editor of the Irrawaddy Magazine

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