I came to Myanmar this time specifically to be here for the General Election. An awful lot has been written elsewhere about it. Much of it by people much better connected, informed and qualified to comment than me. On the other hand, much of it by ‘parachute-journalists’ dropping in for a few days armed only with very little qualification to comment and a huge readiness to deal in trite cliché and to tell the same story as the next guy or girl.
I hope to squeeze in somewhere in-between. [Apologies, it’s another long read]
My personal experience of the election was based on spending time only in and around Yangon. I went to Aung San Suu Kyi’s rally in her Kawmhu constituency (and wrote about it here) and the very large NLD rally at Thingangyun in an out of the way part of Yangon, permission having been denied for the party to use People’s Park, a location perhaps too symbolic for those as yet in power; it was the site of Suu Kyi’s first political intervention in Myanmar when she spoke there during the uprising of August 1988.
On the eve of Election Day I made my poll prediction. I had spoken to hundreds of people in Yangon and asked them their voting intention. While some said they would not be voting, either because they were registered in a far away ‘native town’, because they were not for some other reason on the voter list and even in one case because they were ‘not interested’.
Everyone who told me that they had a vote and would use it told me that they would vote for the NLD. I did not meet a single person prepared to say that they would vote for the USDP, the soldiers-in-plain-clothes party of government. Not even on the Twante Canal island of SeiKyiKanaungDaw a supposed USDP stronghold.
But I figured there must be supporters of the status quo out there, if only out of self-interest, so I predicted 90% of Yangon votes would go to the NLD. I was hardly going out on a limb, everyone in town thought the same. And was right.
There was more doubt about the national picture. Even normally very well-informed people in Yangon were uncertain about what the impact of the USDP’s voter drive would be in the countryside. Some thought their sustained program of investment in new roads and other bits of locally-important infrastructure might swing some votes their way.
Seven hundred plus foreign journalists flew in to cover the election coming away with not much more than one story between them. It went pretty much like this.
1. The city was quiet (hardly any traffic all day. Hurrah). Even very early (polls opened at 6) there were queues at polling stations. This was taken to reflect an eagerness, after 25 years, to engage in democratic process, to exercise the franchise. I think that’s true but I think it was also because no-one wanted to be standing in a queue in the street once the day warmed up.
2. When people voted they had purple ink painted on their little finger. Inky-pinky sounds good. There were pictures of inky pinkies all over Facebook and Instagram.
2. Aung San Suu Kyi (she who must be obeyed) voted in Bahan at 9am. Few people have ever seen so many journalists. She had said she would be there at 7.30 so the press scrum (not too strong a word) had a frustrating wait and then were present in such number that next to no-one got a decent picture. Let alone a few words. Some were even knocked over by her car.
3. Aung San Suu Kyi headed to Kawmhu in the countryside. The bulk of the media pack followed in convoy. I’ve no idea why. The story of the day was always more likely to be found elsewhere.
4. Despite some outlets previously having given the impression that all Muslims (not just the stateless Rohingya) were excluded from this election, the media found some who were voting. Some of them were even women. Who knew?
6. After lunch came rain at 3pm. Lots of it. I was in the relatively upmarket neighbourhood of Hledan. It was just another Sunday afternoon. Except a lot of the shops were shut and there was no traffic. The polls quietly closed at 4pm. A momentous if largely uneventful day of voting had drifted by. Counting began.
7. The focus shifted to the NLD’s headquarters in Shwegondine. A large fluid, flag-waving, song-singing, red-wearing and still-wet crowd filled the street outside but somehow managed to allow traffic to pass – slowly – along it. Legions of the press filled all vantage points opposite the HQ and stood atop vehicles. Official results were never going to come fast but the NLD had enough of its own to create a mood of celebration, if not quite victory. An appearance by Daw Suu was hoped for but we had to settle for U Tin Oo. He did not disappoint with a rousing speech and a reception to match.
8. The next day Suu Kyi did speak but early in the morning and the crowd gathered was relatively small. It built through the day for a second party as more unofficial results came in. By now it was pretty clear that an emphatic result was in the bag. But how emphatic? The message from the NLD in response to this was simple. “Stay calm and go back to work”. Everyone did.
9. As the Union Election Commission began to release official results it became clear quickly that the NLD’s victory would be very emphatic indeed, certainly enough to secure a simple majority in the parliament. Maybe even winning 67% of the contested seats, sufficient to overcome the army’s 25% block vote and to select two of three presidential candidates (not to include Suu Kyi) though not enough (an impossible +75%) to change the constitution. The results were released deliberately and slowly over a week. One friend described it as being like waiting for your exam results, thinking you had done well enough, but wanting to be sure. By the Thursday after the election they could be sure. The NLD passed the magic number of 329 seats that give it as much control as it can have under the 2008 constitution.
10. There were no obvious signs of celebration now. Even at NLD HQ. People were happy of course. But realistic too. The army still have control of perhaps the most important ministries and it’s not clear if or how Suu Kyi will unpick the kleptocracy, repeal the four religious laws, contain the nationalists or protect the Muslims. It’s not even clear that the NLD have a legislative program, let alone a progressive one.
A legitimate government democratically elected – democracy per se – was the goal. It should never really have been in doubt I think that – this time – people would vote for Suu Kyi and the NLD because they have had their shoulder bravely to the wheel of opposition all these years and that they would vote against the governing party because they are simply the soldiers who used to / still oppress and steal from them dressed differently.
It was in most part that binary a choice.
But without PR the result has left a lot of minorities unrepresented in what could be a transition, interim parliament. That’s what a winner-takes-all first past the post system does for you. It’s great the NLD gave the current government a good kicking at the polls but it’s not any sort of victory for democracy.
There are no Muslims in parliament. None. Even the NLD was not politically bold enough to run any. And only 13% of members are women (though that is at least up from 5%). The people who voted for the USDP (including 15,000 in ASSK’s own constituency) will end up under-represented. The ethnic party voters will mostly end up not represented at all. PR (which the NLD opposed) would still have produced an NLD landslide, would have been much fairer all round and the greater inclusivity it would have delivered might have helped the process of national reconciliation that Suu Kyi says is her priority.
Instead it’s almost a one party state with an autocrat at its head. “Above the president” she says.
Just like General Than Shwe. Plus ça change?
I think next time will be different.
Not least because the NLD will have had five years not simply proclaiming a desire for democracy but being responsible for the delivery of electricity. Responsible for managing an economy that has seen the value of its currency fall by 30% in twelve months and more recently, following a flood damaged harvest, huge increases in basic food prices. (Across the board inflation runs at 13%). Let alone responsibility for relations with China and ongoing fighting with insurgent armies.
And also because I think the conversation will move on from being all about Suu Kyi’s success to being also about her failures. She has failed (yet?) to rid the country of its military-involved and still part controlled government, and the army-backed cronies who have made fortunes from Myanmar’s natural resources and newly booming economy, whilst most of the population have gone very much without.
Surely her ambition for all those years that she spent confined on University Avenue was to emerge from house arrest to remove them, perhaps by replacing them. Not to work alongside them. Not to have some of them fund her election campaign. Not to facilitate and condone their ongoing control and exploitation of the country and its resources. Not, effectively, to let them get away with it. And with all the money.
Is that the outcome the people who before 2010 uttered her name reverentially and only secretly expected of her? Is that what the Nobel Prize committee imagined her objective to be?
Or is it a compromise ASSK has settled for because she knew was running out of time to secure for herself what she has believed to be her destiny to lead the country in her father’s name?
Is it a compromise the voters accepted because, even despite reservations, many really do ‘love The Lady’, because it was what was on offer, and because it was that binary a choice. They wanted rid of the army party and their bootlickers. They still do.
The voters I have talked to since the election are hugely uncertain about what happens next. What will ASSK’s next move be, how will the military respond, what will happen to the price of rice? If she dies or for some other reason needs to retire anytime soon – she’s not young – will they be left for the foreseeable future with the 2008 constitution in place, left asking ‘is that all there is?’
There are no obvious successors in the NLD but plenty of contenders in the existing government and military establishment, and closer to hand, particularly amongst the squeezed-out-this-time ’88 generation. Political, ethnic and even geographic division are more likely than unification. All that Suu Kyi has achieved in winning this election could easily go up in a puff of cheroot smoke.
And has the price of ASSK’s urgency on the road to this success-and-failure compromise been paid, not least, in the form of the religious nationalism and islamophobia (in its literal sense) that has raised its very ugly shaven head in the form of Ma BA Tha? The USDP may have provoked and stoked it but the NLD, too conscious of every vote counting, has not sufficiently opposed it. Will they now?
Myanmar’s five million Muslims, if they don’t actually live in fear (and very many do) live at least in trepidation. What does the future hold for all of them when those most in need of help, the persecuted Rohingya of Rakhine, have already been described by a senior NLD figure as ‘not a priority’.
Let’s give Aung San Suu Kyi some time and the opportunity to surprise and delight us. Maybe she can persuade the army to go back to barracks and the monks to go back to the monastery. And both to get out of politics.
But if 140,000 Rohingya are still in camps and the Sittwe ghetto by the time of the 2020 election, if the NLD again fights shy of standing Muslim candidates, then Myanmar will have become a more permanently divided country. This will be her legacy, her greatest failure.
And surely not something her father would have wanted.