RANGOON — In considering what comes next after Burma’s looming general election, Aung San Suu Kyi may well look back to her party’s annulled first victory 25 years ago.
It’s a political scar that the 70-year-old pro-democracy icon, along with much of the country, remains acutely aware.
On September 8, the opening day of the official two-month campaign period, the leader of Burma’s largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), released a short video message.
“The general elections… will be a crucial turning point for our country,” she said. “We hope that the whole world will understand how important it is for us to have free and fair elections, and to make sure the results of such elections are respected by all concerned.”
Suu Kyi was at pains to emphasize what she views as one of the country’s most formidable political tests: the immediate post-election period.
“A smooth and tranquil transition is almost more important than a free and fair election,” she said, clearly indicating her concerns over what will happen when the votes are tallied and the results filter in.
Many of Burma’s estimated 30 million eligible voters share her anxiety.
Suu Kyi and her supporters continue to wonder whether the current military backed establishment will agree to hand over power should the opposition party win big at the November poll.
The figure most qualified to answer that question is Burma’s army chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. To date, he has struck a reassuring note, repeatedly stating that the military would honor the election result and hosing down fears of a post-poll coup.
During a meeting with local journalists on Monday, the commander-in-chief sought to justify Burma’s 1962 and 1988 coups by referring to a political “power vacuum” present at both points in time.
“But I personally dislike military takeovers,” he added, pledging that the army had no plans for such an incursion, regardless of the election result.
While casting predictions on Burmese politics is a daunting, if not impossible, task, following are three scenarios that could take shape post-November.
What we do know is that a coup can be definitively ruled out if the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) manages a strong electoral showing.
This scenario would make many feel numb, leading to the strong possibility that incumbent President Thein Sein could be voted into a second term of office.
If that occurs, Burma would be unlikely to see further significant political and economic change but, rather, more of the “one step forward, two steps back” approach to reform currently in evidence. Further constitutional reform would be blocked and the military’s political role would endure.
A Thein Sein-led government would likely continue to pursue the peace process with ethnic armed groups, although the extent to which key issues such as federalism would be addressed is an open question.
Secondly, there is the situation in which neither the NLD nor the USDP wins an outright majority and by extension the power to select the next president. If this transpires, political strategy will be key, as both parties seek to coax smaller ethnic and other political parties into backing their preferred presidential pick.
In this situation, the larger ethnic political parties, or a coalition of smaller parties, could tip the balance.
The political horse-trading in the months following the vote could also conceivably see the NLD and USDP agreeing to form a governing coalition.
This eventuality may be welcomed if it led to genuine talks between the two sparring parties and progress on issues of national importance, such as peace and national reconciliation—the achievement of which are impossible without the military’s cooperation.
But such a détente—involving military, ethnic, ruling party and pro-democracy figures—which has been absent for decades, seems unlikely.
Though Suu Kyi has met President Thein Sein on multiple occasions since 2011, the meetings appeared perfunctory and their relations increasingly frosty.
The third scenario would perhaps be the most politically exciting: the NLD securing an electoral rout with the power to select the president and form executive government. This could only occur if the election was genuinely free and fair.
To achieve this, the NLD must win more than two-thirds of elected seats. If it does, Burma could see its first genuinely civilian government since before 1962, when the late dictator Gen Ne Win launched a military coup that ushered in decades of repressive rule.
But while a prospective NLD government might be full of new faces and new policies, the party could not entirely discard the role of the military—a fact Suu Kyi knows well.
“We want to wipe out suspicion between the NLD and the military, to collaborate with mutual respect for issues of the Union and democracy,” she said in a campaign speech on Monday.
“Regarding constitutional amendments, the NLD wants to work with the military without upsetting the country’s stability and without concerning people.”
Most Burmese people would welcome The Lady’s accommodating approach, with the scars of 1990 still firmly in mind.