Myanmar’s November election—a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) – was a procedural success. Turnout was high, the voting process went smoothly, and there was little electoral violence.
These are impressive results for a nation ruled under military dictatorship for half a century, until the country began introducing modest democratic reforms over the last few years.
The November 8 election, however, has elicited a fair amount of criticism from the international community. And it’s easy to understand why.
The Rohingya, a deeply marginalized Muslim community doubly cursed as an ethnic and religious minority, were completely banned from both running and voting in the election. Many other groups were banned as well. Additionally, for all the talk of democratization in Myanmar, the military—much like in another fragile democracy, Pakistan—continues to wield power behind the scenes. The Constitution of Myanmar, written by the military junta, sets aside a quarter of Myanmar’s national and state assemblies for military-appointed representatives.
In a statement issued immediately after the election, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that “there remain important structural and systemic impediments to the realization of full democratic and civilian government” in Myanmar.
Other critiques were far less diplomatic. “Long lines of voters on November 8 won’t make these fundamentally flawed elections free and fair,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, several days before the poll.
All this said, for many in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and economic hub, the reality is much simpler: The election worked, and the winner—Aung Sang Suu Kyi, whose NLD garnered three quarters of the vote—is well-positioned to shepherd the nation through an exciting, though uncertain, era of change.
This, at least, was the chief takeaway from a recent trip that one of us (Lim) made to Yangon to gauge voter reactions to the election. To be sure, this was based on informal conversations, not a comprehensive survey—and perhaps most importantly, it did not feature interviews with any of Myanmar’s disenfranchised groups, including the Rohingya.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi is a bonafide rock star in Myanmar. In Yangon, she is everywhere. Street vendors hawk t-shirts and calendars emblazoned with her likeness. Large watercolors festooned with her face greet foreigners in the main lobbies of guesthouses.
She is a virtual cult of personality in Myanmar, and a popular one at that. “I’m very happy. We are all very happy,” proclaimed a taxi driver in Yangon when asked about Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
A guesthouse owner (and a proud voter) declared that “she will change everything,” predicting that she would improve education in a country where many cannot read—and where many young children are seen working in stores and restaurants instead of going to school. The guesthouse owner’s sentiments were heard many times over several days in Yangon.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi has seemingly given people something to hope for as the country slowly transitions to democracy, or at least something approximating democracy.
Myanmar is not only experiencing a political transition; it’s also experiencing various socioeconomic transitions. The country is in the midst of evolution and change.
In Yangon, these transitions can be seen vividly. Run-down and even burned buildings stagnate alongside new, freshly painted structures. Haphazardly placed slabs of concrete cover large potholes—as if suggesting that efforts to create more workable infrastructure are in place, yet still works in progress.
Meanwhile, large multinational corporations—including KFC and Hitachi—have set up shop in a city where many people, including a waiter encountered at a restaurant in Yangon’s main tourist area, have no idea what a credit card is. It is a reminder how the country on the whole—like so many other developing nations—is rapidly modernizing even as common people struggle to catch up.
That said, in Yangon, Myanmar is making efforts to engage and court the world. Signs at tourist attractions, the train station, and the airport proclaim in English: “Warmly Welcome & Take Care of Tourists.” Locals are eager to speak with foreigners, including monks who approach Westerners to practice their English.
Outside of Myanmar, Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s superstar status has suffered a big blow. The Nobel Peace laureate has steadfastly refused to express support for the Rohingya, and has said little about the persecuted community at all.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s studied silence on the Rohingya is a great shame, but not a surprise. In Myanmar, the plight of the Rohingya does not register particularly high in the general public conscience. Throughout several days in Yangon, locals did not bring up the topic of the Rohingya on their own. A taxi driver, after saying he was Muslim, was specifically asked what he thought about the Rohingya’s predicament. He offered only a vague and general response: “We want peace for everyone.” By “we,” he was referring to the NLD party, of which he is a member.
At the end of the day, Aung Sang Suu Kyi is a politician who wanted to win. Bringing attention to the Rohingya Muslims and potentially offending the country’s Buddhist population simply would not have been a smart political move.
The Rohingya’s future could well be a very dark one in Myanmar. Rohingyas were prohibited from running and voting in the election, and no Muslims won a seat in parliament (28 contested seats in the election). In effect, Myanmar’s 2.5 million Muslims have zero representation in Parliament for the first time since the country’s independence in 1948.
Recent years in Myanmar have seen the rise of Ma Ba Tha, a virulently anti-Muslim political organization led by a hardline Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who has been described as a Buddhist Bin Laden. Wirathu recently said that he wants his fellow monks “to feel gross” about Muslims, “like they feel gross about human excrement.”
Notably, the NLD excluded Muslims from its list of candidates for the November general election. Wirathu played a part in this. “That’s why we decided not to field any Muslim candidates, for fear of antagonizing Ma Ba Tha, losing votes and failing to win a parliamentary majority,” said one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s closest aides and senior NLD leader, U Win Htein.
Ma Ba Tha openly supported the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of President Thein Sein, which was badly beaten by Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s NLD. In this sense, the hardline group was unable to sway the election outcome. Still, it remains a powerful force. Neither Ma Ba Tha nor its venomous views will be easy to take on in Myanmar, a country where Buddhist monks are venerated so deeply. Sadly, the Rohingya have few, if any, influential advocates inside the country.
This makes for a soaring contrast with the exuberant Burmese encountered in Yangon.
For them, it’s an exciting yet an uncertain time—and they simply seem happy to have experienced a successful election that brought a resounding victory to a leader that they believe can steer the country forward.
Allison Lim is a graduate of the University of California at Irvine and a California-based researcher. She can be reached at [email protected]. Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.