With an overwhelming mandate for change, Myanmar’s Lady faces the daunting challenge of managing expectations while appeasing the country’s still powerful military. BY DANIEL DE CARTERET
On November , the day following Myanmar’s freest and fairest election in decades, thousands of people dressed in the opposition party’s red colours gathered in front of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s headquarters in Mandalay to watch the count projected onto a big screen.
Detailing the fall of townships once controlled by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the electronic tally was met with cheers and dancing in the street as Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD stormed towards a landslide victory.
“We love Suu, all my friends,” says 24-year-old Nyi Nyi Zaw, a local agricultural produce trader. “She welcomes all countries, she will bring change to the basic roots of education, she can sort out the many religious problems,” he adds, overwhelmed with excitement as the NLD continued to rein in the votes that night.
His expectations are shared among the overwhelming majority of the country’s voters that went to the polls the day before to vote for change in a historic election.
The nationwide poll saw the NLD take sweeping control of the legislative, with 77 percent of the contested seats in the parliament’s lower house, which also gives it the right to choose the next president.
Yet despite the wave of democratic fervour, the military retains ultimate control of the country through the constitution, which bestows it the power to determine the pace of Myanmar’s transition to democracy.
Throughout their campaign, the NLD’s policy promises were hazy at best. But that didn’t matter to their supporters.
Fifty years of military rule has isolated an economy controlled largely by military- connected cronies; it has filled history books that were, until recently, treated like contraband, with pages of violent suppression of political dissent; it has sparked brutal wars with ethnic minorities and fuelled religious division that is still being resolved.
Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate and daughter of the country’s independence hero, Aung San, is seen as a beacon of democracy and as Myanmar’s next saviour in the eyes of its citizens, who throughout history have looked to Burmese kings and charismatic revolutionaries to unify the country, says political scientist Myat Thu.
“From a hero, [people] expect two things: to be moral and to be courageous,” the former political prisoner says from his university office in Yangon, where he now lectures. “These are the things they expect from their heroes and Aung San Suu Kyi shows these two things.”
But expectations will need to be carefully managed.
“The most powerful institution in this country is the military, and according to our constitution, the military took a leading role in Burmese politics,” Myat Thu says.
The 2008 military-inspired constitution reserves 25 percent of seats in parliament to the military, ensuring that they can veto any constitutional amendments, which require a 75 percent vote to change.
This means that Suu Kyi cannot sit as president – despite voters overwhelmingly indicating that they want her to – without military approval, as the constitution bars anyone with foreign offspring from taking the job. Her children are British.
Furthermore, they maintain constitutional control over the interior, border a airs and defence ministries – thus keeping a close check on its army and police, as well as the country’s cumbersome bureaucracy.
But since the election, Suu Kyi has held meetings with the military’s most powerful upper echelons and Myanmar’s incumbent president, Thein Sein.
Little has been made public of these conversations though Suu Kyi has stated that she will not address past grievances.
While the regime’s highest order may be negotiating to protect their future, back in Mandalay, the rank and le of the USDP had conceded defeat the day immediately following the election.
A desolate party headquarters was far from the hive of activity it was just days before the vote.
Ye Aung Myint, attorney general for the Mandalay Region, was the only official remaining in the building and he was already laying out plans to open a private practice while the votes were still being counted.
“All the people love the NLD,” he conceded with a shrug. “It’s emotional, they don’t like the USDP.” He declined to comment further as to why that is the case.
A long list of issues facing Myanmar looms over the incoming government: a proposal to switch the country to a federal system in order to abate ethnic conflict, a move to liberalise a once-isolated economy to attract foreign investment, and the urgent need for policies to improve a struggling education system, just to name a few.
Perhaps most pressing, however, is the balancing act the NLD will have to play managing the immediate expectations of a jubilant population while negotiating with a military used to answering only to itself.
Much of the results will likely depend on how much the generals have to lose. “The key challenge will be the good relationship with the military; without that, the transition will not be so smooth,” says political scientist Myat Thu.
Despite the ecstatic scenes immediately after the election the voting public has not forgotten what life is like under a military regime.
In Mandalay, two days after the election, 23-year-old medical student Han Ye Zaw was asked what changes he expected with the NLD in power.
“Only if the NLD win will we find out,” he says. “It will still be dificult though because of the cheating government.”
Follow Daniel de Carteret on Twitter – @ deCarteretD.