In Myanmar, the people’s determination to bring back democracy — and its face Aung Sang Suu Kyi — is heading for a triumph over the dark forces of military autocracy, Buddhist religious fundamentalism and ethnic warlordism. It has been a long wait of 63 years since General Ne Win’s coup in 1962.
The ruling USDP run by generals in civvies has conceded defeat — and more importantly agreed to honour the verdict ‘ whichever way it goes’. Even more important for the Pagoda Nation is what the Tatmadaw ( Burmese Army ) chief Senior General Ming Aung Hlaing has said. ” Our people want democracy , they will have it and we will honour whatever the poll outcome,” said Hlaing, underscoring that there will be no repeat of 1990 , when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept the country’s first free polls since 1962, only to be denied power and Suu Kyi ending up in jail for years.
The Tatmadaw shifted the goalposts, saying a new constitution was needed before a parliamentary system could be introduced. Despite Western sanctions and bouyed by Chinese support, the military hung on to power. Finally in 2008, it got the Constitution it wanted, one that guarantees the military one-fourth of the seats in both houses of parliament and perpetual control over three key ministries (defence, border, interior) along with a provision that would ensure Suu Kyi cannot contest for President or Vice-President because her late husband and both her sons were British nationals.
The NLD did not contest the 2010 national parliament polls, leaving the military-dominated USDP to ride to power. But when President Thein Sein started to usher in some democratic reforms to get rid of the Western sanctions — including release of Suu Kyi and hundreds of political prisoners from jail — the NLD decided to contest the by-elections to 44 seats in 2012. It won 43 seats and became the leading opposition party.
In the rundown to Sunday’s election, there was never a doubt about an NLD victory. Despite the increasingly active Buddhist fundamentalist campaign in support of the USDP, Myanmar’s urge for democracy could not be swept under the carpet. Apart from remote controlling the Buddhist fundamentalists by wiping up an anti-Muslim paranoia, the USDP also tried to work out a nationwide ceasefire with twenty-odd ethnic rebel armies.
That did not quite work out — only eight ethnic militant groups joined the ceasefire, the most powerful ones like the Kachin Independence Organisation or the United Wa State Army not among them. But ethnic minorities, about 40 percent of Myanmar’s population, have always been keen on the country becoming an authentic federation and not just a democracy. In Sunday’s election , there were many ethnic parties in the fray specially on Myanmar’s border to the north, east and west and the USDP was expecting they will run away with many seats which would otherwise go to the NLD.
It looks like neither the religious card nor the ethnic card finally worked. These ethnic parties are likely to slice a bit into the NLD’s victory pie, but indications received so far suggests the NLD is headed to win atleast 70 percent of the seats. They will surely form government but Aung Sang Suu Kyi cannot contest for President or Vice-President and neither can her party gain control of the three key ministries. The men in uniform will also retain 25 per cent of the seats, good enough to prevent any change to the constitution, for which one would need a 75 percent vote. All that the USDP needs is about five percent of the seats which added to the 25 percent of the military-controlled seats is good enough to block an amendment.
So despite the sweeping victory and possible assumption of power, ‘the lady’ as Suu Kyi is called, cannot change the constitution or influence major national policy on security issues. But the fighter in her will refuse to take this lying down. She has already said she will be ‘more than a President if my party wins’. That would mean after a decade of compromise with the military to get a modicum of democratic practice in place, she may now use her mandate to fight it out in the precincts of the legislature and outside it to take Myanmar on the road to democracy.
She is likely to go for a ‘very balanced foreign policy’, negotiating carefully between China, the West and India. She told ‘India Today’ TV recently that her government could indeed help India and China come closer. Suu Kyi will also be open to resolving outstanding issues with all neighbours, Bangladesh included. Her silence on the Rohingya issues has dismayed many but as she said recently , “I am not an icon but a practical politician, because icons sit on the walls.”
But her sweeping election victory will deflate the Buddhist fundamentalist groups who have been openly campaigning for the military-backed USDP. These groups, largely funded by Myanmar’s notorious military intelligence, have tried to raise a paranoia over the country’s 4 percent Muslim population, including the Rohingyas, to help the USDP sweep the democracy agenda under the carpet. That has not worked — in much the same way as the Hindutva groups failed to avert a BJP defeat in the key Indian state of Bihar despite their high octane religion-driven campaign. The Ma Ba Tha and groups like it have failed to deliver for their military masters in Myanmar.
For Bangladesh, the lesson to draw from Myanmar’s historic elections is that religion-driven politics will not work beyond a point anywhere in the region if they oppose the forces of democracy. Only if these forces align with those fighting for democracy is there a danger of them hijacking that platform.
Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC correspondent and a close Myanmar-watcher, is now a senior editor with bdnews24.com