Ninety-one political parties contested Burma’s historic elections on Nov. 8. There was the United Democratic Party, the Union Democratic Party, the New National Democratic Party, the Democracy and Peace Party, the People Democracy Party and the more streamlined Democratic Party. Both the Pa-O National Organization and the Union Pa-O National Organization hoped to represent the Pa-O ethnic group. Farmers, who make up most of Burma’s population and still limn the poverty line, could choose among the Confederate Farmers Party, the Union Farmer Force Party and the Myanmar Farmer’s Development Party.
But only one political party in Myanmar, as the country is officially now known, really mattered: the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Three days after the poll, with roughly half of the votes counted by the government’s electoral commission, the NLD had claimed 256 seats in parliament’s upper and lower houses. In a distant second place, with 21 seats, was the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which won 2010 elections the NLD boycotted because Suu Kyi was still under house arrest at the behest of the ruling generals. On Wednesday, President Thein Sein congratulated Suu Kyi on her victory. “Our government will respect the people’s decision and choice and will hand over power as scheduled,” the former general also posted on his Facebook page.
Despite dozens of parties running, fewer than 10 have scored any seats at all in the lower and upper houses of parliament. All represent ethnic groups: the Shan (11 seats), the Rakhine (3), the Kachin (1), the Zomi/Chin (4), the Kokang (1) and the Wa (1). When the votes are tallied in more remote areas, it is likely these ethnic parties will pick up more seats. Parties that did relatively well in the widely-condemned 2010 polls came up empty this time around. So did well-funded new political forces. “I am amazed,” says former presidential advisor Nay Zin Latt, who formed the National Development Party, which has failed to win a single seat. “I never imagined the result would be this unbalanced.”
After ruling for nearly 50 years, Burma’s military overlords orchestrated a transition to a “discipline-flourishing democracy,” releasing Suu Kyi and other NLD elders and allowing for the landmark Nov. 8 elections. Yet even with a stunning mandate from the electorate, the NLD will still have to contend with a parliament in which one-quarter of seats must be filled by the military. Leadership of powerful government ministries, such as Home and Defense, are reserved for army brass. The police, immigration and security services will sit outside the civilian administration’s remit, as will the officialdom that for so many decades has bound Burmese to much needed yet hard to secure bits of paper.
Given these military-designed obstacles to governance, the NLD’s landslide victory gives it needed power. Instead of having to make alliances with smaller parties, the NLD can focus on its own goals. Yet Burma is also a country of stunning complexity. At least one-third of the population is made up of ethnic minorities, some of whose militias have been battling the Burmese state for decades. While Burma is largely Buddhist, there are sizable Muslim and Christian populations; both religious minorities complain of persistent discrimination by the state. Even the NLD refused to field a single Muslim candidate, for fear of the influence of Buddhist chauvinists. The Tatmadaw, as the military is known, may be despised by many for its record of abuse. Still, it is also one of Asia’s largest militaries. The rank and file have desires of their own, as do their superiors who surely did not expect the USDP to do quite so badly. Will all these varied voices be heard?
Suu Kyi says yes: she is pushing for national reconciliation and on Nov. 11 requested a meeting with the country’s military chief, President and speaker of the lower house of parliament in order to secure a “peaceful implementation of the people’s desire.” During the campaign, NLD patron Tin Oo, once Burma’s military chief before defecting to the democratic camp, stressed the importance of reaching out to ethnic groups. “The important thing is to build trust with the ethnics and the military,” he said. “We will push for national reconciliation.”
Even as the polling and vote-counting unfolded, the Burmese military was clashing with ethnic militias in Shan state, the nation’s largest by geography. In 1990, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) came in second in national polls won by the NLD. The junta, however, ignored that result and prolonged military rule. Two days before the Nov. 8 election, Sai Lynn Myat, SNLD secretary for Southern Shan state, wondered how committed Suu Kyi was to bringing federalism to Burma — something her father, independence hero Aung San, had promised to pursue prior to his assassination in 1947, shortly before Burma’s independence. Many of Burma’s ethnic frontiers are rich in natural resources but the profits don’t flow back to local people. “I don’t think she understands what the ethnic people really want,” said Sai Lynn Myat. “We are not her priority.” On Nov. 11, he was more diplomatic. “I hope the NLD can do something for our people,” he said. “We will have to wait and see.”
Meanwhile, the top echelons of Burma’s hybrid military-civilian government were still processing the magnitude of the ruling USDP’s loss. All of the ministers in the President’s Office lost their seats, with the exception of one who ran as an independent. Almost a dozen NLD poets have been voted into office, while the former Defense Minister and the USDP’s acting chairman were booted out. Although the new parliament will not convene until early next year, ongoing ceasefire talks with ethnic militias are complicated by the fact that the government’s lead negotiator also lost his seat. In Naypyidaw, the bunkered national capital unveiled by the generals around a decade ago, top bureaucrats described a scene of confusion. “There will be many changes, and the NLD has already declared something about reducing the government,” says Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office. “I do not know what will happen. But this is the democracy mechanism.”