Elections in History

Myanmar’s 1990 Election: Born of a Democratic Uprising, Ignored by the Military

By Wei Yan Aung 7 October 2020

YANGON—The first Myanmar election that arose as a response to a popular uprising was the general election of 1990. It was held two years after people around the country rose up against the repressive socialist regime of Myanmar military dictator General Ne Win, whose mismanagement had thrown the country into absolute poverty during his 26 years of rule.

The military had responded to pro-democracy protests with a brutal and violent crackdown in 1988. But the violence and bloodshed failed to shake the people’s desire for democracy, and the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) government was forced to propose the first multiparty democratic election since 1960.

Democratic forces, because of their lack of trust in the socialist government, wanted an interim government formed to organize the election. However, with behind the scenes help from Gen. Ne Win, Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services General Saw Maung seized power, claiming that the military had to step in.

Five days after staging the coup, Gen. Saw Maung, who ran the interim military government from the War Office, said he would have the army return to its barracks after handing power over to the newly elected government. He called for all parties to cooperate in order to hold the election as early as possible. But people doubted that the military strongman was as good as his word.

The military regime, which called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), tasked an election commission that had been formed during the time of President Dr. Maung Maung with organizing the electoral process. That commission was led by retired financial commissioner U Ba Htay.

On Sept. 27, 1988, the Political Parties Registration Law was enacted, enabling new political parties to register in the country, which had been under a single-party dictatorship for decades. Political parties began to register on Sept. 30.

The election commission announced on Feb. 16, 1989 that the election would be held on May 27, 1990. Meanwhile, the SLORC government had arrested and imprisoned countless democracy activists and dissidents.

Senior leaders Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which was born out of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, were detained and placed under house arrest under the State Protection Act on July 20, 1989.

The multiparty democratic election, which was the outcome of the sacrifices of tens of thousands of lives a year earlier, was successfully held on schedule in 1990. It was the first-ever election provoked by the uprising of people from all walks of life in Myanmar’s history.

A total of 93 parties competed at the polls in 485 of 492 constituencies.

The NLD, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San, won over 90 percent of the seats, securing victory in 392 constituencies. The National Unity Party, the proxy of Gen. Ne Win’s BSPP, secured just 10 seats.

Breaking its promise to return to the barracks and ignoring the wishes of more than 15 million voters, the SLORC government refused to hand over power to the NLD.

As a result, for the next 20 years, Myanmar remained under military rule and democracy remained in darkness. The military government organized a general election in 2010, but the NLD boycotted the vote, saying that it had no trust in any election organized by the military.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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