NAYPYIDAW — The overwhelming majority of Burmese voters spoke in one, clear voice on Nov. 8. They voted against “business as usual.” They lined up peacefully at polling stations around the country and, one by one, voted for change.
Twenty-five years since claiming a resounding victory in the annulled 1990 vote, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has again won a convincing mandate.
Burmese people will hope for a smooth transfer of power but many maintain a deep-distrust of the current administration.
Some believe the government still has some tricks up its collective sleeve to justify staying in power. However, when pressed, few can elaborate on what form such disruption would take.
What is clear is that few “experts” or self-appointed “Burma specialists” accurately foretold the voting patterns of millions of Burmese on polling day. The plain fact is that voters wanted their country to be ruled by a civilian leadership.
But until the results began pouring in last week, voters had kept everyone guessing, including government officials, the military and its associates, as well as seasoned diplomats. Few, if any, predicted the extent of the NLD’s victory, despite the evident popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi. Not a few were pleasantly surprised.
My broad assessment thus far is that people are uncertain what the future holds; they don’t expect miracles but hope that under a long-overdue NLD-led government, dignity, the rule of law and democracy can be restored.
They hope their rights will be respected, new economic opportunities will materialize, business will be more transparent and the government will prioritize health, education and the general welfare of citizens. Burmese people also long for peace around the country and it is hoped that Suu Kyi and the NLD will take the peace process forward and genuinely address ethnic demands for federalism.
So what comes next? It’s time the current administration prepares for the exit, ensuring there is a genuine handover of power that would set the stage for a new political culture to emerge.
Once dubbed Burma’s Gorbachev for launching reforms in 2011, the former general turned president Thein Sein should gracefully accept defeat, leave the throne and honor the people’s desire. If he does so, this will be his lasting legacy.
The military remains a wild card in the political transition. But Suu Kyi, as far as we can tell, is more than ready to reconcile, compromise and collaborate with the generals. Importantly, she is no stranger to the institution of which her father, Gen Aung San, is often described as the founding father.
In initial, private meetings with the military, Suu Kyi will put sensitive issues to one side; opting for Burmese-style cordial dialogue. She has spoken of restoring the army’s dignity as a force for the people and will seek to lay out its future role for the country.
Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing can also earn the people’s respect if he willingly, and in good faith, enters constructive dialogue with Suu Kyi. He will be expected to ensure stability in the transition period and honor his word to respect the poll’s outcome and work with the victorious party.
It may not sit well with some, but Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing can go some way to mitigating the ugly history of decades-long military dictatorship by respecting the will of voters and allowing the formation of a new, democratically elected government to serve the country.
Their actions could prove decisive in allowing Burma to turn a new page in its modern narrative.
The Burmese people were brave enough to vote for sweeping change and put their faith and confidence in new leadership. For the current and former generals, this might be their best chance to ensure they are on the “right” side of history.
At this critical juncture, observers of all stripes will be watching to see which route they take.