National League for Democracy leader and parliamentary candidate Aung San Suu Kyi campaigning in Yangon, Myanmar's capital, on Nov. 1. (Photo: Joseph Allchin)

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As Jubilation Gives Way to Reality, a Difficult Road Lies Ahead for Democracy in Myanmar

Though Sunday’s elections were a landslide for Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's future may be even tougher than her past.
Nov 13, 2015· 8 MIN READ
Formerly based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Joseph Allchin has written for Financial Times, The Economist, Foreign Policy, and others.

MANDALAY and YANGON, Myanmar—This country has recently been awash in red. In the days since Sunday’s election—the first free and fair general election in 25 years, which appears to be a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy party and its leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—jubilant crowds dressed in NLD colors have come out to celebrate with huge rallies. In the weeks prior, candidates traveled miles of dusty rural lanes and pathways of urban slums as supporters appeared from doorways and on balconies beaming, waving, and greeting hopeful politicians—emissaries of Daw Suu, the party’s totem, saint, leader, and chairperson all rolled into one. As election results came in and parliamentary seat after parliamentary seat went the way of the NLD, throngs cheered in all weathers outside the party’s headquarters in the capital, Yangon. Blocking a usually busy avenue, a sea of supporters chanted for their leader—“Daw Suu! Daw Suu!”—as giant screens beamed down the results and music blared on the festive chaos below.

The elation and grassroots enthusiasm for “the Lady,” as Suu Kyi is known, is partly the product of a quarter century of denial of her mandate. The Lady and the NLD won elections in 1990 in another landslide, but a military coup prevented her from taking power, and she was placed under house arrest for a decade. The election was the culmination of the movement for democracy her father, who played the leading role in liberating the nation from Britain’s colonial rule, started before his assassination in 1947 and a subsequent military takeover. Instead Myanmar, then known as Burma, got a cruel and belligerent military regime lasting from 1962 to 2011, holding farcical,boycotted elections that placed in office retired generals masquerading as civilians.

In 2010, the regime began to soften, paving the way for Sunday’s polls. But there remains “serious concern with the constitutional framework,” said Jason Carter, chair of the Carter Center Board of Trustees, who monitored the elections. One provision reserves 25 percent of seats in parliament for the military. Meanwhile, a change to the constitution requires the support of more than 75 percent of parliament, giving the military effective veto power. The highest political body is an 11-member National Defense and Security Council dominated by military officers. Suu Kyi can only get on the NDSC if she is elected speaker of the lower house or if she takes the relatively lowly position of foreign minister. The NDSC retains the power to call a state of emergency and cancel civilian rule.

Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from being president—a law banning from the office any spouse or former spouse of a foreigner is said to have been written just for her, as she was married to a British national—but if NLD wins 329 seats, it can name the president. Suu Kyi’s party, as of Friday, had won 364 seats compared with the incumbent party's 40, but the challenges ahead of it could be even greater than those it has overcome.

Kyaw Soe Lin campaigns for the National League for Democracy in a suburb of Mandalay on Nov. 4. Only a few years ago such political displays would have been unthinkable. To the right is a campaign poster for his opponent, the military-backed incumbent. (Photo: Joseph Allchin)

Kyaw Soe Lin, now 34, has been elected to represent part of Mandalay in parliament. As a young law student and NLD member in 2003, he had a ringside seat at one of the most notorious episodes of the government’s efforts to deter Suu Kyi’s ascendancy. She had been released from house arrest the year before, and Soe Lin was given the honor of driving for her as she toured the country. As dusk fell on May 30, as they wound through the town of Depayin, a couple of monks appeared in the road ahead and appeared to be asking Suu Kyi to stop her convoy and greet local villagers. She agreed. Quickly, however, a mob appeared—the monks were imposters.

“We were told by the NLD members who protected our rear that a mob armed with sticks and other weapons was approaching us in four or five buses,” Soe Lin recalled a few days before the elections this month.

With rocks raining in and comrades falling, he managed to drive the stricken vehicle past trucks parked in their path to block them. He continued into the darkness and was soon lost. As Suu Kyi and her fellow travellers arrived at a military checkpoint, she told them to cooperate. The most senior officer came to the car and put a gun to Soe Lin’s head. Soe Lin would spend six months in jail. Suu Kyi was arrested and began her final stint in house arrest, one lasting more than seven years. “I just had one wound on the right side of my head and cuts on my left side from glass,” Soe Lin said, showing me the scars. An estimated 70 members of the convoy were killed.

Former student leader Ko Tun Kyi (center) attends Friday prayers at a mosque in Yangon. (Photo: Joseph Allchin)

Political violence continues to plague Myanmar. On the restive borders to the north, armed groups are fighting the central government for greater autonomy. The NLD has traditionally campaigned on a commitment to federalism, with ethnic states retaining a large degree of autonomy—a policy based on a 1947 treaty that Suu Kyi’s father signed but the military reneged on. It instead expressed a medieval-inspired ethos in which one ethnic group dominates the others.

An ethnic nationalist Buddhist movement called the Committee to Protect Race and Religion (in Burmese, Ma Ba Tha) has recently raised temperatures. Ko Tun Kyi, 46, a former student leader and one of the country’s 4 percent Muslim population, argues that “Ma Ba Tha is the government; it’s the military; it’s the same organization. They started Ma Ba Tha.”

Aung Thein Lin is a 45-year veteran of the military and current member of parliament. (Photo: Joseph Allchin)

Ma Ba Tha is led by a monk known as Ashin Wirathu who is fond of telling journalists and the public, “All rapes [in Myanmar] are committed by Muslims.” In 2003 he was arrested for stoking riots against Muslims. The story goes that while in jail, he would receive food packages from the head of intelligence for the regime, Khin Nyunt, known as an infamous neutralizer of Myanmar’s rebel movements. The last few years have seen repression of the Muslim ethnic minority known as Rohingya in campaigns of violence and oppression that began after the alleged gang rape and murder of a Buddhist girl by three Rohingya.

During the campaign season, I went to see an incumbent member of parliament representing the military’s chosen party. Aung Thein Lin is a hard-bitten military veteran who spent 15 years on the front lines of many of Myanmar’s civil wars. His rhetoric reflected much of Ma Ba Tha’s. “I believe we need to protect our race and religion—this is something I grew up believing,” he told me. “We need to protect the women from having difficulties.… There are too many Christians, Chinese, trying to marry our women by force.”

Former blogger Nay Phone Latt, imprisoned in 2007 for spreading news about democracy demonstrations, campaigns for the National League for Democracy on Oct. 30. (Photo: Joseph Allchin)

Ma Ba Tha successfully campaigned for laws that prevent Buddhist women from marrying outside the flock and requiring approval for conversions. While Ma Ba Tha does not seem to have made much difference in the elections, the atmosphere of ethnic and religious animosity it provokes seems to have been a factor in the NLD’s failure to select any Muslim candidates. Suu Kyi, said Ko Nyi Zaw, a Muslim interfaith and labor activist, “seems scared of Ma Ba Tha.”

The NLD, for its part, complains that those who are targeting Islam are really trying to shoot down the NLD. “In rural areas where they have little news, [Buddhist] monks are powerful. People believe them,” said Nay Phone Latt, an NLD candidate for the Yangon regional assembly. Latt is a former blogger who spent four-and-a-half years in prison for spreading news about political protests in 2007. Those with such influence, he told me from the campaign trail, “have written, ‘Don't vote NLD—we will become an Islamic society.' ”

Around 80 students jailed in March for protesting education policy were brought to court in Tharyawaddy in November. 

(Photo: Joseph Allchin)

One of the legacy issues the new government will be forced to deal with is suppression of free speech. Around 80 students who protested against rigid education laws in March are now behind bars awaiting trial in Tharyawaddy. Every week the detainees are taken from their cells to a courtroom, where most often the judge doesn’t show up. Nanda Sit Aung, 35, is facing 69 charges. He says some allege offenses in Letpadan and Yangon—a three-hour drive under the best of circumstances—on the same day. He is defiant, however, and hopeful that a new government will be able to remove such legal absurdities as a ban on student unions, which, he said, “are seen as an enemy for the government.” Sit Aung, like many of the protesters, is a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. They were attacked with force by authorities. Phyo Phyo Aung, a slight 26-year-old on her second stretch in prison, was arrested after Cyclone Nargis for carrying out unauthorized aid work. Her father also spent years in jail but is proud of his daughter, whom he now visits at the redbrick courthouse every week.

Thousands turned out to see Aung Sun Suu Kyi in Yangon on Nov. 1. (Photo: Joseph Allchin)

“The minds of the authorities haven’t changed,” explained former student leader Tun Kyi. He endured stretches of two years continually shackled and with no family visits, he said. The protests came “so close to the elections [that] the government cracked down forcefully.”

Another pressing matter, Soe Lin and Latt agree, is the economy. “One of the biggest issues is the government and cronies take public property and sell out everything,” explained Latt as we sat on tiny plastic chairs outside his party office, traffic streaming by. To survive in isolation from the world while maintaining a vast army, the military government allowed a small number of businesspeople with connections overseas, known as the “cronies,” to thrive by exporting natural wealth in exchange for cash to spend on military hardware.

One such natural resource is jade, of which Myanmar is the world’s top producer. Global Witness, an NGO, says the value of jade production in the country is worth around $31 billion per year—or roughly 46 times government health spending. After promising a transparent, market-based economy in the early part of this decade, the government “privatized” these assets. Cronies and military-owned companies bagged the best sources of jade in closed biddings, only commissioning open tenders once the profitable concessions had been privatized, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“As the military cedes formal control they tried to take whatever they could with them,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. “It was a bit of a looting party.”

Sein Hlaing, 74, voted for only the second time in his life on Nov. 8. As others lined up  behind him to vote, he showed the ink-stained finger indicating he had cast a ballot. (Photo: Joseph Allchin)

On Election Day, long, orderly lines formed outside booths around six in the morning. Sein Hlaing, 74, had voted only once before. “Politics is a dirty game,” he said in the street outside the polling booth, displaying the finger dipped in ink as a fraud-prevention measure. “But Daw Suu can do it for the country, for everyone. I don't like the military.”

Voters were infused with the rare feeling of being able to influence politics. “It's my first time,” said Zarni Lin Htet, 26. “It is exciting.”

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Latt is adamant that the party will increase education and health spending but admitted one day on the campaign trail that wresting budgets from the military will be tough. “We will have to negotiate,” he said as another elderly NLD supporter came out of his home to garland the visiting politicians.

Across the country in recent weeks, and in the stickers and slogans on display at the NLD’s victory party in Yangon Sunday night, the message was clear: a demand for change. How far the optimism that poured out can carry the country remains to be seen. Many point hopefully to the peaceful and dignified manner in which tens of millions of Myanmar citizens queued up to make history, casting off decades of injustice by putting an X in a box. But the test of the coming months and years will be whether the NLD can construct a just peace in which the rule of law can act as a greater adhesive than the rule of the gun.