The historical bypolls in Myanmar have been concluded and Daw Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been declared victorious by a huge margin. This has led the country to a point of no return in terms of credible reforms which will make the civilian government a lot more trustworthy internally as well as globally. Are the reforms already progressing at a pace acceptable to the people of Myanmar and the West, and more importantly, where does Myanmar go from here?
The bypolls were conducted following the resignation of the members of the parliament who were elected in the November 2011 national elections and were nominated to the Council of Ministers (as specified in the constitution). The NLD decided to re-register itself as a political party and contest these elections after the civilian government amended certain party registration provisions to which the NLD had earlier objected.
Although the NLD, having won 43 of the 45 contested seats, will only have a limited representation in the parliament, there is sufficient optimism that Suu Kyi’s would be a strong presence. The USDP and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party won the final two seats. Suu Kyi will be representing her constituency of Kawhmu near Yangon, most probably from July, when the lower house of the parliament starts its new session. With only 37 out of 440 seats in the lower house, the NLD may not have a big voice, but it will be the largest individual opposition party. With these results, the NLD will now have 37 seats in the lower house, four in the upper house and two in regional assemblies. Suu Kyi has heralded these results as a “triumph of the people, who have decided that they must be involved in the political process of this country.” So far, no indiscretion has been reported in the polling process.
The road ahead
The biggest problem which still remains in a state of ferment is the ethnic conflict. Despite ceasefire agreements and peace talks with some of the ethnic armies, many of them, including the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), continue to fight the military. In fact, in the run up to the bypolls, the fighting intensified in Kachin state and polling in three constituencies in the state was postponed. This is a problem which cannot be solved without a political dialogue with all the stakeholders, considering that many of the ethnic armies still control some of the most resource-rich areas of Myanmar. There has been a demand for a federal structure of government for self-determination of the ethnic minorities to break this impasse, and Suu Kyi’s presence in the parliament may facilitate a formal dialogue on the issue.
Economically, these bypolls are significant because the fact that a pro-democracy dissident party has managed to triumph in almost all the seats contested sends out a positive message to investors outside of the regular economic allies of the country. Furthermore, the ASEAN countries are urging the West to lift economic sanctions on Myanmar. The EU, Australia and Canada have already expressed their willingness to relax some sanctions starting end-April.
Another issue that is likely to be on NLD’s priority list is the amendment of the constitutional mandate of 25 per cent of the seats in the parliament to be represented by the military. However, this is a tricky issue given that the military representatives to the parliament would also need to come on board with this.
President Sein also needs Suu Kyi in the parliament to provide legitimacy to the political process in the country. To show just how open these bypolls were, President Sein invited observers and journalists from all over the world to Myanmar. Although, the West has appreciated Sein’s steps to ensure transparency in these bypolls, a section of the incumbent cabinet is reportedly unhappy at the pace at which power is being devolved, and NLD’s resounding victory may cause this divide to deepen.
There is also the possibility that Suu Kyi would be offered a cabinet position, like heading the Foreign Ministry, however, it is unlikely that she would take that up and leave the opposition.
The NLD has sufficient time to prepare for the 2015 national elections. However, it is unclear whether Suu Kyi would be able to contest then. In addition to the constitutional disqualifications she faces on account of being married to a British national, there are concerns about her health. While campaigning for her party in the run up to the bypolls, she collapsed twice due to exhaustion.
Assuming that these results would help Suu Kyi to speed up the process of reforms and encourage transparency in the government would be naïve. At best, NLD would hold about seven per cent of the seats in the parliament (43 of the total 664 seats) with all important ministries like Home, Defence and Border Management still under direct military control. Nevertheless, this will serve as a big step in the direction of recognizing Myanmar as attempting to achieve a functional democracy.
"Myanmar: Imperatives to Economic Reforms," 18 February 2013
"Myanmar and the West: Economics of Politics," 27 February 2012
Bibhu Prasad Routray,
"Talks with the Kachin and Mon Rebels in Myanmar: Strategy, Motives and Hurdles," 23 December 2011
"Myanmar: How Real is the Change?," 8 December 2011
"Suu Kyi and the Ethnic Minorities: Crackdown to Compromise," 5 December 2011
"Reopening of the Stilwell Road: A Print Media Survey," 6 September 2011
"J&K Panchayat Polls: Three Ideas," 10 May 2011
"Prime Minister Khanal and Nepalís Peace Process," 16 March 2011
"Myanmar Elections 2010 Ė III: ASEANís Ambivalence," 3 November 2010
"Challenges Before the President," 28 January 2010