In spite of not unwarranted fears over the conduct of Burma’s general election on Nov. 8, a peaceful, credible vote has given rise to new optimism.
Millions of Burmese cast ballots, free of intimidation and fear, with the country’s main opposition party claiming a resounding parliamentary majority and the right to form a government in 2016.
President Thein Sein and Burma Army commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing have both pledged to honor the poll’s outcome.
The protracted period between the election and the convening of a new parliament early next year will no doubt raise concerns over the potential for instability. Many voters continue to harbor doubts over the incumbent, military-backed government’s sincerity and will be watching closely in the expectation that a genuine and peaceful political handover transpires.
Suspicions are also informed by memories of Burma’s last credible nationwide vote in 1990, when the military regime annulled the landslide victory won by the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Indeed, despite the high hopes and optimism that last Sunday’s vote has engendered, caution is needed. Many Burmese will reserve judgment of the incumbent executive until a full transfer of power has occurred.
Suu Kyi herself has criticized the long handover process.
“This is quite incredible; nowhere else in the world is there such a gap between the end of the elections and the forming of the new administration and certainly it is something about which we should all be concerned,” she told reporters at a Nov. 5 press conference.
Thein Sein, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann have all agreed to sit down with Suu Kyi, at her request, but no date has yet been fixed.
In a meeting with political parties on Sunday, Thein Sein sought to soothe concerns.
Powers would be “transferred to the next government systematically,” Thein Sein said. “We will ensure it will be smooth and stable.”
The international community has largely praised the peaceful conduct of Burma’s general election, congratulating the victorious Suu Kyi, as well as Union Election Commission chair Tin Aye and Thein Sein, both former generals, for facilitating a free vote.
US President Barack Obama spoke with both Suu Kyi and the president last week.
Critics have taken aim at the Obama administration for prematurely parading Burma as a foreign policy success story. But the US has sought to engage the current Burmese leadership while continuing to encourage the democratic process.
Importantly, the US has held onto its stick—keeping some sanctions against targeted associates of the military regime on the books—while other nations, including Norway and EU countries, have removed almost all of their regime-era restrictions.
In the wake of the election, Daniel Russel, a top level US State Department official, said it was too early to forecast the wholesale removal of remaining US sanctions.
“The further the process of reform moves, the more credible and respectable the political process is, the greater the support and the lower the hurdles for the US government, and I suspect other governments, to actively support a new Burmese government, including through adjustments to our policies,” said Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs.
At this critical juncture, the international community should keep its finger on the country’s political pulse; helping to ensure a genuine transfer of power in which Burmese voters see the representatives they elected assume their parliamentary seats in 2016.