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Bertil Lintner on Burma’s Poll: ‘They Can’t Really Risk It by Cheating’

The Irrawaddy speaks with journalist Bertil Lintner about hard-learned lessons of Burma’s 1990 election and the current outlook for true political change.

At 4pm on Sunday, Burma’s long-awaited vote wound down smoothly in polling stations nationwide, but the story doesn’t end there. Results are expected to trickle out over the next week, and it will be months until the newly elected legislatures take the reins and form a new government. 

In the midst of this historic event, what looks likely to be recorded as Burma’s freest and fairest election in 25 years, The Irrawaddy speaks with journalist Bertil Lintner about the ill-fated 1990 poll that saw a landslide victory stolen from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the party helmed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Lintner, who has reported on Burma for decades and is regarded as a leading authority on Burma’s modern history, here reflects on lessons hard learned and the outlook for political change.

I saw you this morning at the polling station where Suu Kyi cast her vote. You saw there was a big crowd, many supporters cheering upon her arrival. What is your impression?

So far so good, I must say. It seems like the turnout has been huge. Judging from what I’ve heard and seen, the main impression is that the NLD is going to do extremely well. And that’s not only here in Yangon, I was also in touch with people in parts of the country this afternoon, and the pattern is the same.

Did you have a chance to visit any other polling stations around town?

No, I did not, but I was in touch with people in other polling stations here and also upcountry. Taunggyi. It remains to be seen exactly how many votes and seats the NLD gets, but judging from these initial observations I would not be surprised if they gained a majority or close to majority in the parliament. But we must remember that, even so, it would be very difficult for them to set up a government that would have the same kind of power as the present one. As all of us know, the three most important ministries—defense, home ministry, border affairs—are appointed by the military. And the way the president is selected, it’s also a different procedure; it’s not a popular vote. So the military is and will remain the most powerful institution in this country for a long time. So even if there is an NLD government—if, we don’t know yet…

So given today’s situation, do you think the NLD win?

Well I’m not an astrologer, so I can’t say. It depends how you define winning. I would not be surprised if they won more seats than the USDP, more votes than the USDP. Just talking to people, and listening—we get reports from various parts of the country—that seems to be where it’s going. But if they can get absolute majority of elected seats—we must remember that 25 percent of seats are still reserved for the military—remains to be seen. We don’t know what’s happening in the ethnic states, for instance. I mean, Taunggyi is an exception, it’s very much a capital city of Shan State, and it doesn’t represent the smaller places.

Have you had a chance to talk to people in Kachin or Rakhine [Arakan] states today?

Not Kachin or Rakhine, no. Only Shan State.

What are your major concerns before the polling stations close?

Many people I talked to outside the polling station this morning, they were convinced that they were going to cheat, they being, of course, the authorities that be. The main problem is that nobody trusts the government, so even if they do something right, people don’t trust them and think there must be some kind of devious scheme behind it. But I’m not really convinced that they are going to cheat, because there’s so much at stake here. The international recognition and legitimacy, Myanmar’s standing in the international community. So I think, I cannot prove it, of course, but I think that the government wants this day to be as open, free and transparent as possible, because there’s so much at stake. They can’t really risk it by cheating or with irregularities in the voting. But it remains to be seen how they are going to deal with the election results. We will not know that until, I would say, end of December or maybe January. And by that time all the foreign journalists are gone, they’ve moved on to other stories. Everybody has already come to the conclusion that Burma is now free and democratic, and I think we will have to watch this very carefully, what will happen.

If you remember, in 1990, it was the same thing; on the 27th of May, enormous joy and celebration, people really thought this was a breakthrough, that things were really going to change. Two months later, exactly two months later, the SLORC came out with an announcement basically saying no, we cannot hand over power to one party, there are so many other parties, other interests we need to take into consideration. So instead of the elected assembly, 485 seats at that time, Myanmar ended up with a national convention consisting of 100 MPs elect and 600 people hand-picked by the government. And I remember the disappointment and the anger that people felt. But somehow they got away with it. I don’t think they will be that crude this time, that wouldn’t work in this day and age. The mobile phones, Facebook, social media, the country’s much more open now than it was in 1990. It still remains to be seen how they are going to deal with an NLD victory, if the NLD indeed wins this election.

Were you in Burma during the 1990 election?

No, I was a foreign journalist, so I was not allowed to cover the election. But it was not a problem because, at that time, we had no mobile phones, we had no Internet, but we had ordinary telephones, and I got news from Rangoon several times a day during that period. So it wasn’t really a problem to be in Bangkok at that time, and I had to stay in Bangkok.

Are you concerned about rigged votes?

Well, we don’t really know yet. There are some reports about vote rigging in Kachin State, there are some irregularities up there. That is probably true, judging by the nature of the sources and so on. But Kachin State is kind of different in the sense that there is a civil war going on, it’s a war zone. To try to rig the election in Rangoon or Mandalay I think would be impossible, even in the other major cities in the heartland. But as I said, that’s just my educated guess, I can’t say for certain.

What happened in 1990 was that a day or two after the election, the result was annulled. The NLD had scored a landslide victory. But the person who was in charge at that time was Kyi Maung, a very nice man, very polite and considerate and so on, and he said at the time that now the government has shown some goodwill, so we will show some goodwill too and wait for their next announcement, instead of claiming victory and saying, ‘Ok, we will take over the government now.’ In hindsight, it seems like that was a mistake because they gave the SLORC enough time to regroup and counter attack. These are military guys, it’s how they think, it’s how they operate.

This time it will be probably more difficult to do that, but if the NLD has won the election, I think it would be reasonable for them to announce the victory and not to wait. It was a serious mistake in 1990, and I think the NLD lost a chance. Now they have a second chance and let’s see how they’re going to handle it.