Myanmar’s Historic Elections

Myanmar held its freest elections ever yesterday. Thirty million people were eligible to vote for a slate that include 91 different parties, but the main contest was between the ruling military party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition. Ten thousand election observers were present.

Today USDP has conceded the election. The NLP, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, appears to have won with an overwhelming mandate. Party spokesman Win Htein stated that 70% of votes counted so far had gone to NLD.

The USDP loss is unsurprising. The military dictatorship was extremely unpopular, and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is a national hero. The scale of the loss, however, is tremendous. USDP lost even in their core of their rural support base. USDP party official Htay Oo expressed surprise, “I wasn’t expecting it because we were able to do a lot for the people in this region.”

Myanmar has spent the last 53 years under the rule of a military junta. First as a straight-up military dictatorship, and since 2010 as quasi-democratic state led by a political party largely made up of junta leaders. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi spent 1989 to 2010 under house arrest by the junta. The end of the junta era will be a tremendous change for Burma.

However, it’s an open question just what that change will look like. One of Burma’s most pressing human rights issues, the treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority, may not necessarily improve under new leadership. The Rohingya have been systematically disenfranchised and denied basic human rights. In this election, an estimated 750,000-1,500,000 Rohingya were denied the vote because Burma denies their existence as a separate ethic group. NLD did not contest this, and did not field a single Rohingya candidate. Suu Kyi herself downplayed the human rights catastrophe facing the Rohingya, saying that “It is very important that we should not exaggerate the problems,” when asked about the Rohingya at a press conference.

There are a lot of ways this story could go bad beyond human rights. History has seen plenty of democratic elections lead to bad governments. Being an excellent opposition party doesn’t necessary qualify you to be a great ruling party; it’s a different skill set. 25% of parliamentary seats are constitutionally reserved for the army, and Aung San Suu Kyi cannot legally become president. But here, and now, where millions of people saw their votes bring about the leader of their choice – for the very first time – it’s a true victory.