The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD)’s election victory is no longer breaking news. But it’s important to understand why the NLD won another landslide victory, what it means for the people of Myanmar and what message the world should take from it.
The landslide victory was the third for the NLD under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi since the party contested the 1990 election. Since the military coup in 1988, the country has held four general elections, in 1990, 2010, 2015 and 2020. Along with some pro-democracy and ethnic parties, the NLD boycotted the 2010 election due to its undemocratic conditions.
Except for that election (which the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party formed by ex-generals won in a landslide), the NLD was the biggest winner in three general elections. Additionally, in the 2012 by-elections held under the semi-civilian government, the NLD also won by a huge margin. Thus, in all four elections it has contested, the NLD has scored an unbroken series of landslide victories.
Why? It is important that we all understand this, and all the other “whys”, in each case. But some observers—both local and foreign—don’t seem to grasp these “whys”. That’s why their pre-election forecasts and comments were so off the mark.
The fundamental reason for the NLD’s victory is trust. Many people in Myanmar have trust in the NLD and its government. That cannot be said of any of the other 90 political parties—old or new—that contested the recent election. Of course, that trust is built chiefly on the determined fight for democracy that the NLD has waged since 1988, together with other pro-democracy activists.
But some observers think the result can be attributed to more immediate factors like COVID-19, which limited other parties’ ability to campaign, and the military commander-in-chief’s public warning to the government about the electoral process a few days prior to the election, and so on. In fact, these things are unlikely to have had much impact on the 27 million voters who cast ballots, as they had probably already made up their mind whom to vote for.
But many observers or scholars of Myanmar and the international media—again, both locals and outsiders—have attributed the Myanmar people’s devotion to the NLD to the fact that its leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, their hero with a flower in her hair, is the daughter of independence hero General Aung San. These are quite shallow and incomplete analyses—such myopic observers can’t see beyond their eyelashes. Actually, while her family pedigree no doubt sparked the people’s interest across the country during the 1988 uprising and in the 1990 election, since then it hasn’t really been a factor in their choice of her as their leader, and it cannot explain the ongoing overwhelming support for her party. One need look no further than her elder brother U Aung San Oo. People have no respect—let alone love—for him, as he, unlike Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has done nothing for the people and the country.
Nor do her previous victories guarantee the Myanmar people’s love for her. And yes, they have come to love her, for the long-term commitments she has made, as mentioned above—because of what she has done for the country and the people. Today, she does not need to rely on her father’s legacy to strengthen her image, as in the 1990 election.
It is true that nowadays, many people love her as “Mother”, but that’s not the sole reason she won the election. When she entered politics in 1988, many called her “Ama” (“elder sister” or “aunty”), given her age at the time. Now, 30 years later, many call her “Mother” or “Grandma” due to her age. But the people’s emotional attachment to her is layered on a political devotion to the NLD that has built up over the past 30 years. The people’s love for her has its roots in her actions dating back to 1988, when she entered politics. Their love for her is more political than personal.
There are a number of key reasons that a majority of voters backed the NLD this year. The primary one is that the party hasn’t yet achieved its main aim—to bring about the establishment of a truly democratic nation in the form of a democratic federal union. Though the NLD they voted for in the 2015 election formed a government and took over the running of the country, the people of Myanmar found that the NLD faced strong resistance from the military and the old establishment. One example was the military-appointed lawmakers’ blocking of the NLD’s attempt to amend the Constitution. This was just one of many such political obstructions it encountered.
So, most Myanmar people, including a significant proportion of ethnic people, regard her as their leader, mainly due to her actions since 1988, including the courage she has shown against the atrocious generals, her willingness to sacrifice her personal life (like other pro-democracy fighters), her determination to end military rule, her genuine love for the country, her straightforward leadership of the people, her devotion to democracy and so on. She showed such qualities before her party’s landslide victory in the 2015 election. But since her government took office in 2016, she has received continued credit for them, despite criticism by observers and so-called experts.
Some observers, including Myanmar observers, have portrayed the NLD’s attempts in Parliament to amend the Constitution as simply an exercise to make the military look like villains in the eyes of the people. That’s not really rational. The people have regarded the military as a “villain” for decades for its ruthlessness, its crony-capitalist economy and its self-serving Constitution. The NLD didn’t need to go to the trouble of proving it again.
Elections are purely domestic affairs. But as a by-product of the vote, the overwhelming support shown by the Myanmar people for the NLD sent a message to the international community too. In recent years, the NLD government, which the people also chose in the 2015 election, has faced criticism and condemnation from the international community due to the military’s disproportionate use of force in clearance operations in townships where Rohingya lived in Rakhine State. While some have rightfully criticized the military and the government, some countries, institutions and rights groups have defamed not only the government but also the people. Many people here in Myanmar feel that they were unfairly condemned.
There are likely many more factors, but these are the main reasons that most of the 27 million voters chose the NLD. The party won 83 percent of the seats (excluding the 25 percent of seats allocated to the military appointees) in the Union Parliament. It also won majorities in most ethnic states. Thus, the NLD has gained the overwhelming support of the people, in contrast to the vote in the US, where President Donald Trump got 71 million votes and President-elect Joe Biden got 75 million.
This overwhelming victory by the NLD means it has a clear mandate from the people of Myanmar. That’s democracy, isn’t it? But Myanmar isn’t a democracy yet. We can interpret the result to mean that the people have given the NLD a mandate to bring about a democracy, or make this half-baked democracy a full-fledged democracy.
So, the NLD itself must understand this and take responsibility for achieving the aspirations of the entire people. They have to try not to repeat the mistakes they made in their previous term, from 2016 until now. There were mistakes in terms of appointing the wrong people to government positions, as well as in the state and regional governments. And sometimes, they were quite slow when they took action against authorities who made mistakes or were corrupt.
The NLD leadership also needs to collaborate with ethnic parties and armed organizations in a more engaging and effective way. Though the general populations in ethnic areas supported the NLD, the party must work with ethnic politicians, ethnic parties and their institutions to achieve peace and other aims. And of course, it has to work with the military. In that regard, it must collaborate more effectively not only with the military leaders but with leaders in other spheres. We can’t forget the need to improve the economic situation as well as to create a good and fair environment for both foreign and local companies to do business in.
The nations of the world should also work with the NLD government, which was elected by a majority of Myanmar’s people. With respect for the wishes and desires of the Myanmar people, the international community should put aside its own interests and agendas and deal with the country’s next government to sincerely help Myanmar’s fledgling democracy.