The 1990 Election—Will My Vote Ever Mean Anything?
By Kyaw Zwa Moe 27 May 2019
On this, the 29th anniversary of Myanmar’s 1990 general elections, The Irrawaddy revisits this article first published in 2005, about the English editor’s experience of voting day, the ensuing disappointments and watching many unjustly imprisoned, tortured or forced to flee for their political activities.
My entire family woke up early that day. Our neighbors were already leaving their homes. Some eagerly shouted at us not to be late. My 63-year-old grandmother and my mother joined them and I rushed to follow. It was election day—May 27, 1990—the first time in 30 years the Myanmar people had been called on to go to the polls.
On the way to the polling station, campaigners in traditional robes were still canvassing votes. Most wore the traditional hat that had become the election symbol of the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Vehicles bearing the scarlet emblem of the NLD drove by, packed with party supporters.
“Help me vote for the party of Bogyoke’s daughter,” pleaded an elderly woman who had been carried on a crude stretcher to the polling booth. She was too feeble to fill out her ballot paper and place it in the ballot box. For her, Bogyoke (General) referred to Aung San, the father of Suu Kyi.
I had just turned 18 like many of my friends. We thought ourselves very lucky to be voting in such an historic election, one which we were confident would lead our country towards democracy.
Around 20 million people, about half Myanmar’s population, were eligible to vote that day. My family and I joined the more than 15 million throughout the country who turned out to exercise that long-withheld right.
The first result came in from Seikkan Township constituency in Yangon. NLD candidate San San won the seat and later reminisced: “I was hoisted up, put on a roof and threw flowers to the crowd.”
As the returns that followed over the next few days indicated an overwhelming NLD victory, San San was asked by a foreign reporter whether she thought the regime would now relinquish power. She dismissed the question as nonsense in view of the huge support for the party.
The final returns gave the NLD more than 80 percent of the vote, and a total of 392 of the 485 seats contested in the 492-member assembly. The military regime-backed National Unity Party (NUP), formerly the Burma Socialist Programme Party led by late dictator Ne Win, captured just 10 seats.
But it was a hollow victory. And how sadly misplaced was San San’s confidence. Far from taking up the representation of her constituency, San San was arrested twice because of her political activities and sentenced to two prison terms, one of six years and the other an inconceivable 25 years.
She served four years and now lives in exile, a woman of 75 with diminishing hope of seeing democracy in Myanmar in her lifetime.
The junta completely ignored the election result, and continues to live in fear of exercising this most basic display of democracy. In the 15 years since the election, Myanmar should have gone to the polls a further three times. Theoretically, however, the parliament elected in 1990 should now be in session, its members sitting as free men and women instead of languishing in jail or living in exile. A truly representative government should be ruling Myanmar in place of the self-appointed, self-serving dictators now in charge.
“The ‘wrong’ party won, that’s why the regime changed their minds about everything after the election,” concluded Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner. “If the NUP had won, I’m sure a new government would have been formed within days.”
Amyotheryei Win Naing, a leader of the Yangon-based National Politicians Group (Myanmar), believes that if the election had been less clear-cut the junta would not have worried too much about handing over power to a coalition of parties and reaching a compromise with democratic forces. After all, 93 parties contested the election and the regime had no reason to anticipate such an overwhelming victory by the NLD. But the NLD landslide victory had fueled fears within the regime that if they gave up power they might face trial for human rights abuses.
The paranoia was so intense that one senior NLD leader, Kyi Maung, was jailed for actually rejecting that possibility by bringing up the precedent of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. “Here in Myanmar we do not need any Nuremberg-style tribunal,” he said—and found himself behind bars for the indiscretion.
It is believed the junta anticipated that in the election, the NLD definitely wouldn’t win by a landslide but votes would be shared by 93 parties contesting the election, including the National Unity Party, or they might have supposed the NUP would win.
There has been much discussion—and much disingenuous talk—about the intended purpose of the election. Indisputable in this debate, however, is the fact that, in June 1989, the junta, then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, enacted a law to hold free and fair multi-party elections for Pyithu Hluttaw (parliament) representatives. The law clearly stated that the parliament would consist of the winning candidates in the general election.
Only the elected members of parliament would be entrusted with the task of drawing up a new constitution.
Jail cells instead of parliamentary seats awaited many of the winning candidates, however. A ruthless purge of the opposition occurred in the six months following the election, and responsible citizens like San San were sentenced to totally unjust and unrealistic prison terms. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was harassed and sentenced to successive terms of house arrest. She’s still in detention today.
There were persistent and credible reports of torture, violent deaths and appalling prison conditions. Three elected NLD members—Tin Maung Win, Hla Than and Saw Win—died behind bars. Fifteen are still in jail, all of them over 60 and probably destined to end their days there.
In the first 15 years following the election, 40 of those elected fled the country to avoid political persecution. Eighty-four have died over the years.
The NLD made one attempt to formalize its election victory at a two-day congress in Yangon’s Gandhi Hall two months after the poll. Nearly all the elected NLD parliamentarians attended—it was the last time the party made such a united public appearance.
For its part, the regime allowed three years to pass before making a move. In 1993 it called a National Convention (NC), attended by 702 delegates. Only 147 of them were elected parliamentarians or representatives of political parties. The rest were hand-picked by the junta.
Two years later, NLD representatives walked out, complaining the NC was undemocratic. One year after that, the NC was adjourned and resumed only in 2004. Khin Nyunt, then prime minister, said the resumption was a first step in a seven-stage “road map” to democracy. The NLD and the main ethnic Shan Nationalities League for Democracy decided not to attend, however, calling it a “sham.”
Last month, the NC adjourned yet again, with no indication of when it will resume, let alone when it will end.
About 10,000 of us assembled anxiously outside the Gandhi Hall when the NLD congress convened in July 1990. There was applause when the decision was announced to give the junta until September 30 to convene parliament. For many, however, the applause was half-hearted: they felt the NLD delegates had missed a golden opportunity.
“That was a great opportunity,” said a former NLD youth leader, who worked with Suu Kyi and Kyi Maung in the buildup to the 1990 election. “If the congress had formed a government, the people, as well as the international community, would have recognized it immediately. Instead, the party concluded the congress just by shouting slogans.”
NLD leader Suu Kyi made stabs at getting the regime to recognize the results of the 1990 election, but she was blocked at every turn.
On the 13th anniversary of the election she declared: “The NLD must stand up firmly to achieve the result of the elections of 1990. To ignore the result of the 1990 elections is to have total disrespect for the people and is also an insult to the people.”
It was a cry in the dark. Since Suu Kyi’s entry into politics in 1988 she has spent some 10 years in detention, silenced and isolated.
During one of her rare spells of freedom, on the seventh anniversary of the election, she tried to convene an NLD congress, but the 316 members who had planned to attend were arrested and the event could not be held.
In June 1998, the NLD set a deadline of August 21 for convening parliament, and when that was (of course) ignored by the regime, the NLD formed a 10-member Committee Representing the People’s Parliament, with a mandate signed by 251 of those elected in the 1990 poll. It brought the country no nearer to a constitutional parliament, however.
A ray of hope appeared in 2002 when Suu Kyi was released from her second term of house arrest and given a measure of freedom to carry on her political activities. The regime made conciliatory noises and for a while it appeared that secret talks were planned between the junta and NLD leaders.
Hopes were dashed in 2003, however, when Suu Kyi and a convoy of supporters were attacked by a military-organized mob in Depayin, Sagaing Division. Dozens of her supporters were reportedly beaten to death, and Suu Kyi and other leaders were arrested.
It wasn’t the first time Suu Kyi had felt the fury of the regime. During an election campaign tour in Danubyu, Irrawaddy Division, in 1989, an army captain ordered her party to halt. She kept walking—towards the muzzles of soldiers blocking the road. The captain ordered the squad to prepare to fire, and only the counter-command of a senior officer saved Suu Kyi from being gunned down.
In November 1996, a convoy of cars carrying Suu Kyi and other NLD members was attacked by a 200-strong mob organized by the junta’s Union Solidarity and Development Association. Suu Kyi’s companions shielded her from the mob, but her car was smashed.
Myanmar’s opposition faces a much more insidious danger, however. It emanates from those who argue that the election belongs in the past, that it no longer holds relevance or validity in a world of “Realpolitik.” The former youth NLD leader told me sadly on the phone: “Yes, it has become history. In principle, it’s a matter of absolute truth and democracy. But practically, maybe it is no longer realistic.”
An alternative to the 1990 election result should be found, he said. But he utterly opposed the National Convention option.
Above all, the sacrifices of the 1990 election period should not be forgotten, he said. “Don’t think it was easy for us to achieve that triumph. The election came out of our sacrifices—including thousands of lives during the 1988 uprising. It’s easy for people like observers or scholars who sacrificed nothing to say ‘Forget about it.”
The prominent former student leader Ko Ko Gyi, recently freed after serving a 14-year prison sentence, says: “I think that national reconciliation is more important and vital than handing over power. It’s much more important how the representatives we elected in 1990 deal with the military leaders to reach national reconciliation among all nationalities.”
Ko Ko Gyi warns that a straight handover of power would not remove deep-rooted political divisions at a stroke.
There’s also the problem of the divisions that have surfaced over the years within the main opposition party, the NLD.
Growing impatience and dissatisfaction with an aging leadership has led to splits within the party; and the isolation of its natural leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is a further serious challenge to its unity and effectiveness.
Differences within the NLD were present, of course, at the time of the 1990 election, particularly when it came to selecting the candidates. But the countrywide support for the party as a unified force was so massive that the choice of individual candidates was, in the end, immaterial. The voters rallied to the NLD en bloc.
The name on every NLD voter’s lips wasn’t even a candidate: Aung San Suu Kyi had been barred from standing. In handing in her ballot in May 1990, my grandmother was voting for the party of “Bogyoke’s daughter.” Millions of others felt the same way.
Although now 78, my grandmother retains a crystal-clear memory of that day 15 years ago. “We voted naively, wondering whether power would be handed over,” she muses.
Naive, indeed. Far from handing over power, the regime used the election as an excuse to smash the opposition. Among those democratically elected members of what should have become a free Myanamr parliament was the candidate who received my grandmother’s vote: Sein Hla Oo.
We were fellow prisoners in Yangon’s Insein prison. I’m now free, but he is still a prisoner, aged 68, in Myitkyina, northern Myanmar, serving the latest sentence in a string of prison terms that already exceeds 10 years.
Me? I still hope my vote went some way to help build a democratic Myanmar. I certainly don’t want to torture myself with the question: “Was I really lucky to have that vote?”
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