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Democracy rising

A man shows his finger marked with indelible ink after casting his vote at a polling station in Yangon, Myanmar, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. Myanmar voted Sunday in historic elections that will test whether popular mandate will help loosen the military’s longstanding hold on power even if opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party secures a widely-expected victory. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

The groundwork

“There were times I didn’t think Myanmar would ever see a fair election. I first became involved in December 2013 when I had two roles: to share best practices of democratic elections with Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) and to help the political parties write their ethical code of conduct. The goal was to create a level playing field for a free and open election in a country that isn’t used to experiencing one. It wasn’t an easy task.

The early meetings were particularly hard as nobody trusted each other. The opposition parties thought the election commission was a tool of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP] – the head of the commission was a central committee member of the USDP and a former military general. The initial reaction from the other parties was that if this commission was in place, then they would not participate in the election.

The UEC agreed that the political parties would draft the code of conduct themselves and the commission would check it at the final stage. This was a major departure from their traditional, authoritarian style of working – they were used to writing the rules. For the drafting process, a member of every political party from across the spectrum formed a working group along with a commissioner from the UEC. The doubt everyone had at the beginning gradually melted once they started to work together. They began to listen to each other, to understand what drives each other. This process went beyond drafting a document – it created a new culture of working together on a common national agenda.

By the end, everyone was invested. At a ceremony on 26th June, 69 political parties signed the code of conduct. Opposing forces had come together. We had the basis for a successful election – but there was still a long way to go.”

A female performer dressed as a man dances on a street in Mandalay, Myanmar, during the election campaign for the NLD on 6th October

The campaign

“The code of conduct was an attempt to create a level playing field, but the laws were still very restrictive. Mass meetings could only be held within party offices, canvassing door-to-door was largely prohibited, and parties had to provide the exact details of their campaign – where they would be, what they would talk about – in advance. These were all barriers between the opposition parties and the voters. As campaigning started I worried whether the election would be a success as the parties felt stifled and the public frustrated. Then the UEC, against the expectations of nearly everyone, relaxed the campaign rules: the candidates were allowed access to the people and the momentum started to build. The government supported this direction, particularly for the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi. It does raise the question of why Suu Kyi got special treatment and, no matter how well-intentioned, whether such treatment undermined the entire process.

During the final election days I joined the Carter Center as co-lead of its electoral observation mission. As I travelled the country I could feel a palpable sense of excitement: people were engaged, they felt a change was coming. Still, everyone expected it to be hard for the NLD to gain a majority. The ruling USDP was better organised, more established and better resourced. The campaign period was relatively peaceful. There was much less violence than in previous years and the political parties and the UEC mostly followed their ethical codes of conduct. Suu Kyi campaigned all over the country. The huge numbers of people at each of her rallies discouraged any sort of government crackdown – the authorities didn’t want to be seen as stifling the people. By the end of campaigning there was hope that the election would be competitive. Still, I don’t think anyone expected what was to come…”

Suu Kyi greets supporters during a campaign rally in Yangon on 1st November

A t-shirt featuring Suu Kyi’s 2011 Time magazine cover on sale in a Yangon street on 13th November

Bhojraj Pokharel helped prepare and monitor Myanmar’s first open elections in 25 years

Voting day

“Although there were flaws, I honestly think the elections were free and fair. For the first time in the history of Myanmar, this election was observed by thousands of domestic and internal observers and the people freely expressed their will through the secret ballot. There were concerns about the out-of-constituency advance voting where observers had very limited access to the process. In a few polling locations where I observed counting, nearly 98 percent of such votes were in favour of the USDP.

Another cause for concern is the number of voters who were systematically excluded from the voters list and disenfranchised. Rohingya people, who were given voting rights in the 2010 elections, were denied them at this election. Similarly, displaced people, migrants, clergy and people in many conflict zones reported that they did not get a vote. But on the whole the elections exceeded expectations. This was thanks to the democratic wishes of the people, the political parties, the election commission and, seemingly, the government. It’s also important to recognise the role of the volunteers at the polling stations. Most of them were local school teachers and at least 70 percent of them were women. They showed an excellent understanding of the procedures and they were extremely cooperative with the voters and observers. I think they made
the difference.

A woman shows her inked finger after casting her ballot

The celebrations started as soon as votes began to be counted – people were dancing in the streets. The NLD secured a thumping victory with an
astronomical margin: 79 percent of 323 elected seats in the lower house and 80 percent of 168 seats in the upper house. The state assemblies reflected similar results. This all echoed the party’s ferocious victory in 1990. Then, the military reacted by rejecting the results and placing Suu Kyi under house arrest. This time around, the military and the main ruling party publicly recognised the NLD’s victory.

The USDP, the military and the country’s conservatives were clearly shocked by the scale of the victory, but they have secured their position in Myanmar’s politics in other ways. Under the present constitution, 25 percent of all seats in state and national parliaments are reserved for the military, and are directly nominated by the commander in chief of the army. Key ministers, including those overseeing home affairs, defence and border security, are also appointed by the army chief. The constitution was changed to bar any Burmese national from assuming the post of president if they were ever married to a foreign national or if any member of the candidate’s family holds a foreign passport. Suu Kyi’s late husband was British and her sons also hold British passports. So despite Suu Kyi being the leader of the biggest party in both houses, she cannot stand as a candidate for the presidency, which is where the real power lies.”

An observer from the Carter Center on election day

An NLD supporter celebrates outside the party headquarters on 9th November. The UEC didn’t post the official results until 13th November, but local wins gave the party confidence early on

The future

“There is a huge weight of expectation on Suu Kyi’s shoulders as her party prepares to assume office on 1st April 2016. The people believe she will give them democracy and freedom, and Myanmar peace and development. That is why they voted for her. But the constitution is so restrictive that – despite her majority – it will be impossible for her to give them everything they want or everything she wants to give them. She needs to secure more than 75 percent of votes in parliament to change the constitution, which is not possible without the support of the military. Convincing the army to change is a huge task. She has a strong vision for the country, but how much will she be able to realise this within the framework of a restricted parliament? She has to implement her liberal policies within an establishment whose mindset is influenced by a decades-long dictatorship. Success or failure is largely related to how quickly she will be able to change the mindset of existing bureaucratic mechanisms while managing high expectations within her own party’s rank and file. Successfully navigating the transition from an authoritarian rule to democracy will be the test of her life.

Myanmar has witnessed multiple armed ethnic conflicts over the past decades and these need to be ended peacefully. Respecting rights and ensuring justice for the marginalised ethnic and other minority populations while bringing them into the mainstream is a major task. It will be difficult for the Nobel laureate to defend her image as an iconic democratic leader if she cannot bring the marginalised on board to create an inclusive, just and democratic country.

But Myanmar deserves a brief moment of euphoria before addressing these questions. The people have started to be heard and that is the most important thing in a country that for so long has ignored them.

I wish Aung San Suu Kyi luck, but personally I didn’t mind who won, just that the elections happened at all and that they were fair.”

Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with the Myanmar Armed Forces’ commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, on 2nd December


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