We lost.” The Myanmar military junta's admission of defeat in the elections held on November 8 was surprisingly terse. The response, which came from the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, was quick, but a genuine democratic revolution is still far away in Myanmar. For the time being, however, the election result is nothing short of a fairytale, bringing to power Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who has become the symbol of Myanmar's quest for democracy.
Sometimes, change tiptoes in, even if it is history in the making. Unlike the raucous jubilation that comes with the noisy Indian democracy, in Yangon, the victory for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is being welcomed with cautious enthusiasm. The red-letter day for democracy was determinedly ordinary, although the NLD won nearly 80 per cent of the seats. “It is wait and watch,’’ says Ram Niwas, co-ordinator of the Sanatan Dharma Swayamsevak Sangh, a prominent Hindu organisation. The Indian community in Myanmar comprises 3 per cent of the population. “The transition will take a few months.”
There is, however, fear that the results will remain on paper, like in the past when the promise of democracy was crushed by the army. The NLD itself has asked its supporters not to be jubilant. “Passions are running high and they don’t want it to spill on to the street,’’ says Soe Myint, editor-in-chief of Mizzima, the first media outlet to return from exile. The message was clear. The beginning of a new era may be within touching distance, but nothing is certain. “It will still be a government of reconciliation,’’ says Myint. The army may not have won the elections, but it still looms large in the background.
Politics and power in Myanmar, like the Gita’s central philosophy, remain an illusion. Nothing is what it seems. Even after the elections, the complexion of the government is not likely to change. According to the constitution, the military keeps 25 per cent of the seats in the parliament. The defence minister, the home minister and the minister for border affairs are appointed by the military. Moreover, there is a security council dominated by the military, which is above the president.
“Will the military government give the political parties space to function in the way democratic governments function?’’ says K. Yhome, research fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. “How will the military and ethnic parties react to the results? It is too early to say. But it is significant that the elections took place and that 80 per cent of the people voted. ”
The real work of democracy, the behind-the-scene manoeuvres for power sharing, will begin now. The new government takes over only by next March. The biggest challenge for the new government will be the transfer of power. “For the NLD, this will be the most important question. There has not been a precedent of the ruling party handing over power,’’ says Myint.
Handling the fledging economy, which is being opened up for foreign investments, will be another key challenge. Cafes that sell cappuccinos at dollar prices, restaurants with French cuisine and latest smartphones are becoming more common. How this will play out under the new government remains to be seen. The possibility of the NLD coming to power has spooked foreign companies. An article in the Japan Times says Japanese companies in Myanmar are worried about the NLD's lack of “knowledge and human resources to take over the helm of the state”. There are around 250 Japanese companies in Myanmar with investments worth nearly $415 million. Whether this fear is genuine or is part of the military's scaremongering tactics is up for debate.
The peace deal is another important issue. At war against each other for 60 years, some of the ethnic militias have given up their guns as part of a peace deal brokered by the junta, just before the elections. Its implementation, however, will be delicate and complex. The NLD will have to find a way to win the confidence of these diverse groups. On the ethnic front, the NLD will also be challenged by the fate of the Rohingya Muslims, who do not enjoy citizenship rights. Equally alarming is the growing intolerance against Muslims. “The division is wide and deep,’’ says Al Haj U Aye Lwin, convener of the Islamic Centre of Myanmar. Despite its popularity, the NLD did not put up even a single Muslim candidate. However, Lwin believes that Suu Kyi will ensure a more equitable government.
The NLD also faces battles within. Suu Kyi, known in Myanmar as “The Lady”, is ineligible to take over as president because of a constitutional restriction, which prevents people with a foreign spouse or children from holding office. Her deceased husband was a British citizen and so are her children. “The question is, who will be the alternative candidate? This issue itself may further divide the party,’’ says Yhome. Suu Kyi seems to be gearing up to face this challenge. “If I am required to field a president who meets the requirements of section F of the constitution, alright, we’ll find one. But that won’t stop me from making all decisions as the leader of the winning party.”
The burden of expectations on Suu Kyi will be enormous. Her popularity is unquestionable, but being in government will test her abilities as a leader and an administrator. In a country where optimism, although tempered by a generous helping of pragmatism, is abundant, diplomats say the show has just begun.