RANGOON — Just over two weeks since voters turned out in droves for a peaceful general election that ushered in a conclusive majority in favor of Burma’s main opposition party, Burmese people still feel a lingering sense of unease.
In a country where the military has long wielded political power, Burmese citizens’ remain concerned over whether a new government, of the people, by the people and for the people, will be freely able to assume executive power in 2016.
Many are worried that the political transition might be more bumpy than smooth—but to what extent remains unclear.
The past still haunts many Burmese—from the military coup in 1962 launched by Gen Ne Win, to the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s convincing win in 1990 elections, the results of which were ignored by the then ruling junta
Trust in the current government, closely associated with the preceding military regime, is low. Voters’ suspicions have only been raised by President Thein Sein’s apparent reluctance to meet with the leader of the victorious party, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The NLD chairwoman sent separate letters to President Thein Sein, military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and outgoing Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, on Nov. 10, requesting a meeting to ensure a stable transition.
While Shwe Mann has obliged, Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing—two leaders crucial to ensuring a genuine, peaceful political transition—have remained somewhat coy, pledging to meet with the opposition leader, but only after the Union Election Commission has completed its electoral duties.
In the absence of a specified date for the proposed dialogue, some, including Suu Kyi, remain wary.
“Of course, we are concerned,” Suu Kyi said in a recent interview with the Washington Post. “We’ve had too many rather strange experiences in the past not to be concerned. But we know the public is right behind us and that everybody who has been involved in the process has made public statements to the effect that they will honor the results of the election.”
A Bitter Pill
Those results saw the NLD win 886, or 77 percent, of 1,150 contested seats across Union and regional parliaments. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was a distant second, winning 117 seats—10 percent—of seats in play across all legislatures.
The lopsided tally is a bitter pill for Thein Sein and the ruling party to swallow, but no one is to blame but themselves.
A week before the election, Thein Sein told supporters in his native town of Ngapudaw in Irrawaddy Division, “We have changed from a military regime to a democratic government elected by the people.”
“What more change do you want? If you want more, go for communism. Nobody wants communism, do they?”
Some observers viewed his comments as unusual, even counterproductive, with the insinuation that Burma had experienced enough reform. But in truth, most voters had likely already made up their minds.
Thein Sein and other senior party members seemed convinced the USDP would at least win enough of the vote to be able to band together with military appointees to command a slim majority.
Just days before the poll, USDP co-chairman Htay Oo told Radio Free Asia’s Burmese service that the incumbent party would claim “between 65 and 80 percent” of the vote.
Such comments, now proven wildly off the mark, show the president’s men had little idea of the real desires of the electorate. They were convinced of their own infallibility simply because they wanted it to be true.
Following the election, UEC chair Tin Aye, a former USDP lawmaker, admitted to The Irrawaddy he was surprised by the NLD’s margin of victory.
“In the pre-election period, the entire country predicted that a landslide by any one party was very unlikely, and therefore [political parties] might be required to negotiate,” he said.
“So, not only me but also others—the winners and the losers, as well as the other parties—are surprised,” he said.
Tin Aye also confided that he was shocked by the “wave” of people that voted for change.
“Even the dead candidate won,” he said, referring to Soe Myint, who passed away aged 53 after a heart attack in the midst of campaigning just days before polling day.
Although Soe Myint was struck out on ballot papers, voters still defiantly selected the NLD candidate, who, in a result that doesn’t count for the victorious party, blitzed his USDP rival.
The NLD’s sweeping gains may have caught Tin Aye and others off guard, but not everyone. On reading Tin Aye’s words, some of my friends responded: “We are surprised that they were surprised!”
Despite justifiable concerns, Thein Sein’s government has shown signs it is preparing for the transition.
“What we are trying to do is establish a good democratic precedent—which has never happened in our country’s history since we achieved independence [in 1948]; that a government formed from an election transfers power peacefully to the next elected government,” outgoing presidential spokesperson Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy last week.
“We will do it as the last task of our government’s reforms, and it will be our last victory,” he went on to say.
Thein Sein himself has promised to honor the winner and, to that end, would appear to have at least partially come to grips with his role as that of “outgoing president.”
But until a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, likely at some point in December, takes place, onlookers will remain skeptical.
Many critics also question what kind of “political mines” the government might leave for the incoming administration—although Burma’s suite of political and social issues, from poverty to corruption, ongoing conflict, health and education, will already have an NLD-led cabinet on its toes.
To allay concerns, meaningful, open and sincere dialogue between Suu Kyi, the army chief and Thein Sein is essential. A political pact which both winners and losers, as well as the military, can agree on, will be an important step in setting Burma on a more prosperous path.
It remains an open question as to whether the military-dominated establishment can accept Suu Kyi as a legitimate leader of the country, in some form, next year.
Until then, Burmese voters will withhold their celebrations and watch how events unfold between now and March 2016, when the new government is sworn into office.