Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

Landslide Victory Brings Limited Reach

YANGON, Myanmar, Apr 2 2012 (IPS) - The celebrations started even before the polls opened on Apr. 1. The mood has been festive in Yangon and surrounding districts for the past few days, with jubilant revellers, sporting National League for Democracy (NLD) logos parading on open trucks, motorbikes, rickshaws, chanting party slogans and blasting patriotic songs made especially for the occasion.

Crowds of supporters in front of the NLD headquarters, as preliminary results are announced. Credit: Preethi Nallu/IPS.

Crowds of supporters in front of the NLD headquarters, as preliminary results are announced. Credit: Preethi Nallu/IPS.

“We must win” read their shirts, flags and bandanas, all of them in the party’s official colour – Red.

It is a first time since 1990 that masses have taken to the streets during elections, to vocalise their political views in such large numbers, and to openly support their ‘Lady’ Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi won the presidential elections with a landslide victory in 1990 – and was subsequently placed under house arrest by the Junta for over 14 years.

In Kawhmu district, Suu Kyi’s constituency for these by-elections, a massive rally took place hours before polls opened. Suu Kyi herself reached the otherwise sleepy town amidst tens of thousands of supporters who stood on the streets for a chance glimpse of their famous leader.

“They (the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party, USDP) know very well she is going to win and that the NLD is going to win by a large margin,” a 20-year-old who currently attends Yangon University, shouted out, as he pointed to the nearby USDP supporters who were muted in comparison.

The expectations of millions of Burmese across the country were realised with preliminary results from polls indicating a landslide victory of 41-43 out of the 45 seats for the opposition party.

While the NLD confirmed Suu Kyi’s victory early in the evening election day, the administration will officially announce poll results on Apr. 8. The NLD won at least four seats in Naypyidaw, a USDP stronghold.

The NLD is riding high. “There is no turning back for the NLD,” Tin Oo, chairman of the party, told IPS.

He remained unclear about the party’s collective position on Aung San Suu Kyi potentially accepting a ministerial position. But, regardless of the impending decisions, the party has delineated an agenda geared towards long-term reform.

“This is a flicker of democracy we are seeing today. We will continue to push for key elements such as rule of law and transparency from the government,” Tin Oo said.

The chairman also stated that without ethnic minority inclusion in the democratic process, “there will be no peace at all.” He added that the different ethnic groups must be given “equal rights under a federal government” and that their educational and health needs must be met by the USDP.

“There are endless opportunities but there are significant sources of concern,” said Aung Naing Oo. “The legacy of military rule is still present and some departments lack capacity and exposure, while others have vested interests and a highly bureaucratic culture.”

The conviction and confidence that radiated in the faces of a majority of Burmese at rallies in urban centres such as Yangon and Mandalay is evidence of a changing political culture and unprecedented openness towards expressing views that were considered controversial and a ‘risk to safety’ just a year ago.

But despite Suu Kyi’s victory, which is of historic importance to the country, these elections are far from a tectonic shift in the political landscape of Myanmar.

The election result will not materialise in a change in power-balance in Naypyidaw, and Suu kyi will be limited in terms of wielding political leverage, even if she decides to sit in the parliament with a ministerial portfolio.

Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who currently heads the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon predicted that the government will attempt to “isolate and contain” Suu Kyi’s realm of influence.

“If she were savvy enough, she could form cross-cutting alliances with MPs from other parties. A high degree of political astuteness is going to be called for,” Khin Zaw Win explained in an interview for IPS.

Even if the NLD is granted a significant number of seats, the electoral laws and distribution of power in the legislature will need significant remodelling for a truly democratic process to emerge.

Ninety percent of constituencies in the country have been formed along ethnic lines, whereby a clear majority ethnic group is present in each constituency, thereby dictating the politics of that particular region. This has inevitably lead to localised loyalities and divisive politics.

The European Union which has already eased sanctions on Burma this year, announced that it is set to possibly lift sanctions over the month of April, provided the poll results reflect a “free and fair” process.

An EU election observer in Yangon, Malgorzata Wasilewska, stated to reporters that this latest polling process is indicative of “remarkable signs” of progress.

Aung Naing Oo, co-director of Vahu Development Institute, corroborates the EU’s emerging view that sanctions have crippled the middle classes and lower socio-economic strata in the country over the past decades.

“Indefinitely delaying lifting of sanctions might bring back the hardliners or conservatives in the administration to the forefront,” Aung Naing Oo warns.

Although he hopes to shift base to Yangon in the future based on his positive experiences of being in different parts of Burma, and a freedom of movement that is a first in several decades, he acknowledges that changes in the different sectors are dependent on individual ministries and officials heading them.

“There are some ministries that are never in the limelight but have silent revolutions of their own. But there are many that are very bureaucratic and dealing with monetary issues such as the mining ministry that have been accused of rampant corruption. It will take time for changes across the board.”

A major concern over lifting sanctions has been the lack of preparedness on part of the government in handling an influx of large-scale investments, and ethical concerns in terms of ensuring that masses benefit from such an opening.

David Mathieson, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that lifting sanctions immediately, based on election results, will be premature and irresponsible.

“There are two reasons why sanctions should not go anytime soon,” he told IPS. “The first is political calculation. The punitive measures must not be removed until they see that the government is genuine in terms of reform and improving human rights. The second point is that it is impractical to remove them anytime soon.”

The European Union, United States, Canada and Australia are currently the main sanctioning entities.

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