The obligatory applause for the electoral victory of Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi reverberated around the globe immediately after local officials confirmed that her opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had won in 43 of the 44 constituencies where it fielded candidates in last Sunday’s by-election. Suu Kyi herself won a parliamentary seat by a comfortable margin. The NLD’s landslide victory has made it the biggest opposition party in Burma’s parliament.
Although political analysts expected Suu Kyi and the NLD to dominate the elections, many observers were surprised that the election results were announced so quickly, which couldn’t have been done without the approval of the junta-backed civilian government. It seems the ruling generals have been fulfilling their earlier commitment to accommodate the entry of opposition forces in mainstream politics.
There have been a couple of surprises along the way, starting with the junta’s approval of the NLD’s application to register as a political party, which legalized Suu Kyi’s candidacy. The second surprise was the failure of any conspiracy, if there was any, to rig the results in favor of the junta-endorsed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
The decision to respect Suu Kyi’s electoral mandate should be appreciated as the latest in a series of broad reforms Burma’s junta has been implementing in recent years. These include: reviving parliament, the unprecedented release of hundreds of political prisoners, and holding open elections.
But the generals aren’t naïve politicians. Rather, they’ve devised a method to placate Western governments while maintaining their iron grip in the government. Thus, the NLD’s landslide victory, while impressive, has only earned them 43 seats in a chamber of 600 members. In contrast, unelected military officers compromise one-third of the parliament. Nonetheless, Western governments, urged on by Burma’s neighbors, are considering lifting sanctions against the country, with Washington already promising to ease some of them.
Still, this doesn’t mean that the NLD’s recent victory was unimportant. On the contrary, the election demonstrated that Suu Kyi continues to enjoy widespread popularity at home and abroad despite having been under house arrest for two decades. Similarly, her party’s victory also demonstrated its organizational strength has weathered the numerous government attempts to dismantle it. Although it hadn’t run a campaign since 1990, the NLD managed to defeat the government-backed machinery that campaigned on behalf of the NLD’s main rival.
The results also proved that NLD supporters have remained loyal while also appealing to young people, as seen by the number of first-time voters and the large youth gatherings that were held to celebrate the victory of Zay Yar Thaw, one of the pioneers of Burmese hip-hop and a veteran NLD member.
Despite the country’s restrictive Internet rules, Burmese netizens actively monitored the elections through various social networking sites, especially on Facebook. Htoo Tay Zar, a prominent citizen media journalist, noted the popularity of the NLD during the campaign period. “Most people always said the NLD was an opposition party. For me, the USDP is more like an opposition party. Today, I just witnessed USDP’s campaign trip around Khawmu township. No one pays attention to them. Party members are just like sleeping on the truck After all, they are the opposition party since they oppose people’s desires,” he wrote.
Netizens also exposed some visible election violations such as the issuance of tampered ballots and vote buying. But the most interesting revelation was the use of a photo of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Burma last November in the campaign posters of the pro-government USDP. Netizens thought it was an inappropriate form of campaigning, but its political significance should be highlighted. Basically, it further validated the observation that Burmese officials are slowly abandoning their anti-Americanism.
The recent by-election was a triumph of the people’s will. But the building of a more mature democratic society will require a series of transition periods. It’s hoped that Suu Kyi and the NLD will maximize their parliamentary voice to push for more substantial democratic reforms in Burma. But the essential question is this: Will the junta allow the pro-democracy constituency to further expand its influence?