RANGOON — A landslide victory by Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma’s historic election has raised questions over whether the Nobel laureate can overcome distrust from leaders of ethnic minorities and solve long-simmering conflicts along the country’s borders.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) scored a stunning win in last Sunday’s poll, sweeping aside the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of former generals.
But also crushed in the rout were dozens of parties representing ethnic minorities, who make up less than half the country’s 51.5 million population, and who have a long history of antagonism and insurgency against the military junta that ruled Burma for half a century.
The NLD landslide—which means it will form a government on its own—has spoiled hopes by ethnic parties that they would be kingmakers in national politics, trading support for cabinet seats and a strong say in efforts to unwind the country’s highly centralized government.
Instead, Suu Kyi’s party has found itself alone with solving ethnic grievances, potentially dimming hopes of resolving an issue that has long destabilized the country and led to six decades of conflict.
“Frankly, the NLD sweeping such a huge victory isn’t good for the country,” said Sai Nyunt Lwin, the secretary general of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), a party representing Burma’s largest minority group.
“It will have a strong impact on everything, including the nationwide ceasefire agreement,” he told Reuters, referring to a deal signed in October between the government and eight ethnic rebel groups.
I’m skeptical about their ability to handle this perennial issue without the active participation of ethnic parties.”
Despite sharing decades of common struggle against the military junta that ruled Burma until 2011, the relationship between the NLD and many ethnic leaders has long been marked by mistrust.
Like the military, the NLD is dominated by the Burman, an ethnic-majority population that lives in the country’s central lowlands.
Suu Kyi defied calls by ethnic parties not to run candidates in minority-dominated seats. The NLD’s surprise victory in many of those areas left many parties without representation, or with just a handful of seats in the national and local assemblies.
The only exceptions were the SNLD, in the country’s eastern Shan State, and the Arakan National Party (ANP), which is based in the restive western state of Arakan.
“Since we are having a landslide majority, there is no way we would consider a coalition” with ethnic parties, NLD spokesman Win Htein told Reuters.
The party may, however, choose members of ethnic parties for cabinet positions, including the vice presidency, Win Htein said. The party would also consider appointing non-NLD chief ministers in Shan and Arakan states.
To many ethnic leaders, the NLD’s approach already seems high-handed.
“I’m skeptical about their ability to handle this perennial issue without the active participation of ethnic parties,” ANP chairman Aye Maung told Reuters. If the NLD asserts control over regional governments in minority areas, “it will be just like the situation under the USDP government,” he said.
‘We Will Have to Try Very Hard’
More challenging still for the NLD will be reaching an end to fighting that has killed thousands on the country’s periphery in recent years.
Despite the October ceasefire, most of the country’s best-armed insurgent groups are still at war with the government, and fighting led to voting being cancelled in some areas. The NLD refused to support the agreement, saying it excluded many armed groups.
The main problem for the NLD in negotiations will be demonstrating it can influence the military, Richard Horsey, an independent Burma analyst, told Reuters. The military still controls 25 percent of Parliament, while three key ministries—defense, home affairs, and border affairs—are reserved for serving officers.
“The question is what the relationship will be like between the NLD and the military, and how the relationship is perceived by the armed groups,” Horsey said.
Win Htein, of the NLD, said the party would face much more trouble with negotiations than the ruling USDP, which is led by former military men.
“We will have to try very hard. Very hard,” he said.