World attention is focused on Myanmar right now, as the results of the nation's first free election in 25 years are being released. And it's looking like it's going to be a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League of Democracy (NLD). On Monday afternoon, Htay Oo, acting chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—which has held office since late 2010—conceded defeat.
At present, it's still unclear whether the NLD will form a majority government. In order to do so, they need to gain 67 percent of the votes, as 25 percent of parliamentary seats are automatically allocated to the military.
Many never thought they'd see the day Myanmar, also known as Burma, would hold another democratic election. In the 1990 general election, the NLD also won a majority, but the military rulers refused to acknowledge their victory and subsequently held Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years. Elections held in 2010—boycotted by the NLD—established a quasi-civilian government, ending almost 50 years of direct military junta rule.
VICE spoke with Dr. Nicholas Farrelly, director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University, to see what this watershed moment means for the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.
VICE: The NLD look set to win this election. What are the implications for the citizens of Burma?
Dr. Nicholas Farrelly: The implications are threefold. First, everybody's been waiting a long time for a chance to have their say about how their country is run and the vote on Sunday is the best chance they've had to send a message to the authorities in the past quarter century.
Second, it's an opportunity for the NLD, which of course has never been able to hold any meaningful power, to show what it can do when it's forced into heavy duty negotiations.
And third it gives everybody a really strong impression of just how much has changed in Myanmar these past four or five years. It's worth mentioning, that as recently as November, 2010, the country held a general election, which was profoundly undemocratic. The election that's been held this past week looks to have perhaps scraped a pass mark. It's not the most credible election that's ever been held, but it's certainly a great improvement on what happened back in 2010.
The nation's constitution effectively bars Suu Kyi from running for president, as her late husband and two sons are British citizens. So how do you think this will affect the NLD governing the country?
Last week, Suu Kyi told the world's press she was planning to be above the president. We'll have to wait and see what that looks like in practice.
Suu Kyi herself has been very outspoken in her campaign to have the constitution amended. She's yet to succeed on that front, but there's every chance in the months and years to come, there'll be further constitutional refinement, some of which could very much work to her advantage.
So you think constitutional amendments might be made that allow her to become president?
Yeah, there's always that possibility. A constitution as new and fragile as that one could be amended under different kinds of scenarios.
The 2008 constitution also ensures the military is reserved 25 percent of the seats. What effect will this have on the running of the country?
Hard to tell, as we've never seen a situation where we've had that 25 percent allocation of uniformed military personnel, in all of the 16 legislatures around the country, turning up to work each morning alongside a large number of MPs from the NLD. We have since 2012, though, had a smaller number of NLD MPs, who've been doing their time in the legislature in Naypyidaw.
My best guess is that all sides will learn to get along. The army, there's absolutely no question, is Myanmar's paramount political institution and to imagine a future where they play absolutely no political role is to take a few flights of fancy. Because there's just so much power and talent caught up in the military machine that some compromise situation—much as we're probably going to see in the months ahead—might well be in the country's best interest.
In recent years, the Ma Ba Tha, the ultranationalist Buddhist monks, linked to the anti-Muslim riots of 2013, have held great influence over the nation's political climate. What will an NLD majority government mean to them?
That's a question a lot of us are grappling with: What will Ma Ba Tha do next? They're maintaining their public profile. I just got a note from one of my PhD students earlier this morning that she was about to head off to a rally in Naypyidaw being spearheaded by the key Ma Ba Tha monks.
Again, we're in unchartered waters, it's very hard to know what the dynamic might prove to be between the NLD and some of those radical nationalist monastic elements.
Suu Kyi has been notoriously silent about the plight of the nation's 1.3 million Rohingya, the Muslim minority a recent report declared is facing genocide. Do you think an NLD led government will bring about improvements for them?
When she had an election to win Suu Kyi was very cautious in her public statements about this topic. She was reluctant to give ammunition to her opponents, who were looking for any excuse to paint her as being pro-Muslim.
What happens, if she does have a level of power in Myanmar politics in the years to come? I'd anticipate that it's likely to be better for those seeking to manage the conflict along this Muslim/Buddhist fault line, but it's still not going to be easy.
And lastly, what do you envisage in the coming years? Will democracy take hold or is the military's grip too strong?
The military remains a key factor in Myanmar politics over the medium to long-term. I'd also suggest they've put in place a set of processes and institutions that might lead to greater democratization in the country.
A sad fact is that democracy has really shallow roots within the Southeast Asian region and if you look at the immediate neighborhood and the stop-start democratization that a lot of other countries have faced, it's hard to imagine that Myanmar will avoid all of those problems.
With that in mind, we need to be doing what we can to support the country at a key moment in its development when so much is possible, but we need to be realistic about some of the potential longer term outcomes.
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