The landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar’s historic multi-party election is a great triumph in the annals of contemporary political struggles. It marks a stunning comeback for a woman ---- revered as ‘The Lady’ ---- who was robbed of a similar win in 1990 by the military. Subsequently, she survived 15 years of imprisonment and decades of crackdowns on her party by the country’s military rulers.
Although this election has been one of the freest in Myanmar since the ill-fated one in 1990, the NLD entered the fray with a vast disadvantage vis-à-vis the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USPD). The armed forces, the civilian bureaucracy and the Buddhist fundamentalist clergy abused their powers to try and ensure that the NLD’s win would not be a thumping one.
The apparatus of Myanmar’s ‘deep State’ — which detests Suu Kyi’s star status and mass appeal — engaged in patronage politics and fraudulent vote-buying, press-ganged government employees, and ran a blatantly racist and religiously charged campaign in an orthodox Buddhist nation to paint Suu Kyi as a “candidate of Muslim minorities”.
These dirty tricks came to a naught because ordinary Myanmarese people associate the USPD with the dark past of military despotism and decisively rejected the corruption and monopolisation of the economy by the army under civilian guise.
Even though Suu Kyi is now 70, she still enjoys the halo of being the daughter of the great freedom fighter Aung San who was assassinated just after Burma, now Myanmar, got independence from Britain.
The Lady has proved to be more than a handful for the generals in civvies, most of whom could not even win their individual parliamentary seats in the NLD’s electoral wave.
Suu Kyi’s win is comparable to Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. Yet, even though the NLD is on course to sweep more than two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, Suu Kyi will not become president of Myanmar the way Mandela did after apartheid was overthrown in South Africa.
This is because the military-written Constitution has already disqualified her from assuming the top office of the country on flimsy grounds. Moreover, there is a military-appointed block of 25% of parliamentarians who will never permit the NLD, no matter how many MPs it commands, to amend the Constitution.
The political liberalisation initiated by the former junta in Myanmar from 2010 onwards to overcome international sanctions and isolation was carefully orchestrated by reserving an ‘eminent domain’ for the military, not just in parliament but also in key ministerial portfolios, state institutions and realms of policymaking.
Military higher-ups would not be losing sleep over the USPD’s crashing defeat in the elections since they had taken out enough preemptive insurance to keep dominating the country. The fact that the generals are respecting the NLD’s win and not repeating the usurpation of the people’s mandate like in 1990 means that they are now prepared for indirect rule.
Thus, Suu Kyi faces two challenges: Having to appoint a ‘proxy President’ who must be loyal enough to take orders from her, and to fulfill the expectations of Myanmarese people for civil liberties, peace with minorities, federalism and economic development without enjoying full civilian control over the State structure.
The Lady has admitted that the latest elections were “less than free and fair”, but she had to compromise to work within the confines set by the military to even get this far in Myanmar’s political evolution.
The catchy anthem of the NLD has a stirring line- “Go, go, go away dictatorship”. But what Suu Kyi has secured is a hybrid regime that is definitely more democratic than that of the USPD but less-than-perfect democracy she and her people yearn for.
As a compassionate Buddhist who stuck to non-violence against tremendous odds and who believes in the ethos of embracing enemies, the Lady will now attempt to convert the incorrigible army establishment to work together with her in the interests of Myanmar’s long-suppressed citizens. She certainly has a whopping mandate of people power as a tailwind to try and reform the army for which she has expressed “fondness” for, while never accepting its absolutist excesses.
Myanmar may not be lucky to eventually see its most beloved heroine, now already a septuagenarian, occupying the presidency. But short of that, she has taken her nation closer to democracy and already earned her place in the pantheon.
Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs