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Burma’s Suu Kyi eyes victory, but the military lurks in the shadows

Romeo Gacad, AFP | Bus passengers watch a crowd of National League for Democracy supporters gathered outside the party headquarters in Yangon on November 9, 2015
3 min

With Aung San Suu Kyi’s party leading in preliminary results from Sunday’s poll, Burma stands on the brink of a historic change. But will the military allow a democratically elected party to hold real power?


The international community has watched Burma’s tentative steps towards democracy closely, hungry for a success story after many of the promises of the 2011 Arab uprisings collapsed into chaos and bloody civil wars.

But Burma, so far, appears to be on track. Sunday’s poll has been hailed as the country’s first free elections in a quarter of a century. The outcome, if respected, would pave the way for Burma's first democratically elected government since the 1960s.

The elections went fairly smoothly, with international observers deeming the polls to be relatively credible, and members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) conceding defeat on Monday.

For Burma, and proponents of democracy, the moment is nothing short of historic.

And yet the gains are incredibly fragile, with the possibility of continuing military rule lurking in the shadows.

Burma witnessed a similar moment in 1990 when Aung San Suu Kyi, a democracy icon and wildly popular politician, led her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to a decisive victory.

The military junta responded by cracking down on dissent, putting Suu Kyi under house arrest, and thrusting Burma into decades of dictatorship, leaving the country isolated even as its Asian neighbours thrived.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate and daughter of Burma’s independence hero Aung San, is again poised to receive a sweeping mandate. But Burma's military-drafted constitution still allows for the junta to take over the government under certain circumstances. A special council, on which military officers form the majority, can overrule the government and parliament, giving generals a formalised means to seize back power.

In addition, the military has stipulated in the constitution that the president's spouse and children cannot hold foreign passports. The rule appears to have been written with Suu Kyi in mind; her late husband was British and her two sons hold British passports.

The law effectively prevents her from becoming president. Suu Kyi, however, has dismissed the charter and has promised to rule Burma from "above the president" while appointing a proxy to the presidency.

Playing with a stacked deck

Perhaps the most striking factor of these elections is that the goal posts have been set by the junta. For example, a quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of Burma’s parliament are reserved for unelected members of the military.

NLD spokesman Win Htein said on Tuesday that the party would win more than 250 of the 330 seats that are up for election and not reserved for the military in the 440-member lower house, Reuters reported.

There are also 224 seats in the upper house, 56 of which are controlled by the military.

“An election can’t be considered fair if 25 percent of the seats are handed to the military – and the party it supports – before a single vote is even cast,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement online. “Just because Burma’s political parties have no choice but to play against a stacked deck doesn’t mean the deck isn’t stacked.”

The junta also retains the most influential ministries: home, defence and border affairs. The commander-in-chief nominates the heads of these ministries, according to the constitution.

Analysts have also questioned the role of democratic institutions going forward. The military, so far, has wielded control over those whose independence is crucial to the functioning of democracy. For instance, the Union Election Commission, tasked with overseeing polls, is headed by a former army general, Chairman U Tin Aye, underscoring the pervasive reach of the military.

Even as people celebrate Burma’s elections, the most crucial aspects of its transition to democracy remain in question.

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