Give Me a Crash Course In . . . Burma’s elections

Test will be how the generals who run the country react to Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory

Time of change: an Aung San Suu Kyi T-shirt is printed in Rangoon. Photograph: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty

Time of change: an Aung San Suu Kyi T-shirt is printed in Rangoon. Photograph: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty

 

What is significant about last weekend’s elections? These are the first national elections in Burma since the junta that has ruled this southeast Asian nation with an iron fist for 50 years did a turnaround in 2011, after years of international isolation, swapping their khakis for suits and handing power to a government composed largely of former generals. The change was accompanied by the freeing of political prisoners and liberalising of the economy, but the pace of reform has flagged for two years.

So were they kicked out? The opposition National League for Democracy, led by the Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has won, but the test will be to see how the generals who run the country will react to her victory. The last time the NLD formally contested an election, in 1990, the party also won by a landslide. The military ignored the result back then, and Suu Kyi spent the next 20 years under house arrest at her home in Rangoon.

How is Aung San Suu Kyi regarded in Burma? Known to many in Burma simply as the Lady, Suu Kyi is popular to the extent that I once had a taxi driver refuse to accept payment for driving me to her house. She is also an international symbol of peaceful resistance.

So how to turn this affection into genuine political power? The NLD has taken 90 per cent of the vote, while the military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is led by retired soldiers, has taken just 5 per cent. She has indicated that she will direct the president appointed once her victory is confirmed, saying that she would be “above the president”, as she is barred from the presidency under the 2008 constitution drafted by the army. What she is proposing is effectively using a puppet president to carry out her bidding, basing her mandate on huge public support in Burma. Any chosen president would be appointed “just to meet requirements of the constitution”.

Why can’t she become head of state? There is a clause in the constitution, written in by the junta, that bars Suu Kyi from the presidency because of her foreign husband and children – she had two sons with the late British historian Michael Aris. Was it a free election? About 20 per cent of voters were not allowed to vote, including hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, who are persecuted by the Buddhist majority, and displaced people in Burma’s ethnic areas. Other Muslim candidates were also disqualified. Although it wasn’t perfect, it appears to have been more free and fair than anyone expected. Crucially, the United States has commended the elections as being “free and fair”, and Barack Obama congratulated Thein Sein, president since 2011, on the staging of the election.

And where does Su Kyi stand on the Rohingya people? The issue of the Rohingya minority has dogged Suu Kyi all through the campaign, and she has been criticised for not stepping up to defend them. She has since sought to ease strains, however, saying that she would protect everyone in the country and that Burmese people “do not want to live on a diet of hatred and fear”.

What happens to the military leaders now? Thein Sein’s spokesman said that the government would “obey” the results and work with Suu Kyi to transfer power peacefully. Also, the military is guaranteed 25 per cent of seats in parliament and controls the appointment of ministers in key departments, so the generals will have a lot of influence. Incredibly, the head of the military, Min Aung Hlaing, called Suu Kyi to congratulate her and said that the army would “do what is best in co-operation with the new government during the post-election period”. The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper ran the headline: “Welcoming the New Guard”.

Are these elections in Burma or in Myanmar? In 1989, a year after a brutal crackdown on democracy activists, the military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar, and changed that of the largest city and then-capital, Rangoon, to Yangon. As democracy activists expressed a preference for Burma, many countries kept the original name – the two meanings are broadly similar. Since the junta started to release political prisoners and began the process of opening up, increasingly it is called Myanmar. The US officially uses Burma, but President Obama used Myanmar when he visited last year.

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