In 1990, the National League for Democracy triumphed over the proxies of the Burmese military dictatorship in a free and fair election, but the generals brushed the result aside.
Yesterday – after a wait of 25 years, with untold suffering in between – the NLD triumphed again. And this time the generals will let it stand.
Outside the NLD headquarters under Shwedagon Pagoda last night, hundreds of supporters waved red flags and danced to the party’s repertoire of rock songs, blasting out of large speakers as a red and green drone floated overhead. “We’re going to take the whole night for the NLD!” a reveller screamed. “We’ve waited a long time for this.”
The party had already been going for more than 24 hours since polls closed on Monday and the fatigue was beginning to show. Close to the headquarters, many were sitting on the Tarmac. But when the night’s final grouping of results came through from the Election Commission, indicating that the party had won 178 out of 188 seats in four vital areas, the crowd leapt to their feet and roared their approval. The party had won 44 out of 45 lower house seats in Rangoon, all 38 seats in Ayeyarwaddy state and all but one in Bago.
When the polls in Burma’s general election closed at 4pm on Sunday, the road in front of the NLD’s shabby office under Shwedagon Pagoda was already filling up with Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters. On a big screen above the building was a live feed from a polling station in Mandalay: a female teller displayed ballot papers one by one to the camera. Nearly every vote went to the NLD, and each time the crowd sent up a roar of approval.
One vote at a time, the NLD was gaining ground and they cheered every one. At this rate – one vote every 10 seconds – it would have taken years to reach a national result.
Yet as torrential rain poured down, then stopped, and the crowd grew and grew until the traffic was totally blocked, and the NLD volunteers handed out biscuits and sponge cake and long red balloons, there was sublime confidence that we would go to bed knowing all the wonderful details of the party’s landslide victory.
It was a ridiculous, unrealistic hope. In fact Burma went to bed on Monday night knowing nothing. It took the party’s co-founder U Tin Oo, the former general who once served Ms Suu Kyi’s father in the Burmese army and who wears his 89 years as if they were 30 years fewer, to climb on the stage high up the scaffolding and pour cold water on the euphoria. Ms Suu Kyi herself thanks one and all for attending, he said, but she would not be coming to address them, and neither would the results be known tonight, so she advised people to go home. “We won’t be able to announce the results yet,” he said. “All I can say is that the NLD is in a very good position.” As the rain returned to reinforce his words, the crowds ebbed away.
The grip this woman exercises on her people is remarkable. Elsewhere, as the icon and peace prize winner emerged from detention and became better known, she has also become less beloved. Why was she mealy-mouthed about the minorities in her country, especially the benighted Rohingya? Was she not a little too good to be true? Her plans for her country seemed sketchy; people expecting the warm glow of her media reputation found her brusque or bossy or evasive or simply too busy. Almost anyone you speak to about her in Europe admits to some degree of disappointment and disillusionment.
But in Burma none of that applies: here she is Mother or Aunty Suu, to one and all. That was the chord she struck during her earliest appearances in 1988, and the years of stubborn resistance in her home strengthened and deepened the bond. At rallies during this campaign, her rapport with the crowds was remarkably warm and spontaneous, just as it was when she held her first campaign meetings in 1989.
The extent of her appeal was demonstrated by the results declared so far: not only in the heartland, where her popularity was well understood, but throughout all the ethnic areas as well: the Mon, the Karen, the Kachin, the Chin; all overwhelmingly preferred her and her candidates to those of the ethnic parties set up to represent them. In Shan state the Shan National League for Democracy has swept the board – but it had struck a prior deal to co-operate with the NLD. The only exceptional result was the success of the chauvinistic Arakan National Party, and it, too, had a firm prior understanding with Ms Suu Kyi – one important reason, it is believed, why she has had so few warm words for Arakan state’s disenfranchised Rohingya minority.
Such sweeping success, repeated across the rest of the country, will give the NLD close to 70 per cent of seats in parliament’s two houses, and a strong chance of seeing its presidential candidate – which cannot be Ms Suu Kyi, but could be her chosen proxy – elected to the executive presidency, where true power resides, in January.
Ms Suu Kyi has made it abundantly clear that, despite the constitutional bar to her becoming president, she plans, given a sufficient majority, to rule her country. That, one may safely predict, is what will now happen. So what will she do with power? How will she change Burma? The NLD’s manifesto, published in September, is long on warm words, short on particulars, much like Ms Suu Kyi’s speeches. It promises to deal with the root causes of the ethnic conflicts that have wracked the nation ever since independence, on the principles of equal rights and self-determination. It pledges to devolve power to states and divisions, to reduce the number of ministries and to put the military under civilian controls. Optimistically, it says it will “implement a tax system that makes people willingly pay their taxes”; it will raise spending on healthcare, and improve the rule of law – a pet Suu Kyi cause.
But the basic, and in Ms Suu Kyi’s view, most urgent task is to reform a constitution which not only bars her from the presidency, but locks in place the military’s control of the country, giving it 25 per cent of parliamentarians, control of three key ministries, and ceding ultimate power to a Defence and Security Council, more than half of whose members are soldiers.
It has been described as the most difficult constitution in the world to change, requiring at least one of the military MPs to defect, then a national referendum. The present government remains in office until the end of January, but it is expected that Ms Suu Kyi will waste no time seeking a meeting with General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief, to see if a shortcut to reforming it can be agreed. It will be an early, crucial test of her ability to transform her overwhelming popularity into the nuts and bolts of practical politics.
In 1990 a junta shocked by the discovery of its own deep unpopularity was caught in the headlights of popular disdain. This time around the military saw it coming, and has conceded defeat with good grace. And the NLD is relishing its long-overdue triumph.
“My mother took part in the 1988 protests,” Mitt Aung, 28, said above the jubilant noise outside the NLD office last night. “I was outside Suu Kyi’s house to greet her when she came out of house arrest in 2010. We have a lot of trust in her, and we stand with the NLD. I hope she can change the constitution. She will be our Abraham Lincoln.”
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