Sunday Anchor: The lady against the loaded dice

Aung San Suu Kyi is fighting an unequal battle in Myanmar, but she might still win in a country yearning for democratic reform and political freedom.

September 19, 2015 11:07 pm | Updated November 26, 2021 10:26 pm IST

"Winning the coming elections is the only priority for the moment for Aung San Suu Kyi. Without it, there will be no change in Myanmar at all." Picture shows a campaign poster for  Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, ahead of the general elections scheduled for November 8, in Mandalay, Myanmar.

"Winning the coming elections is the only priority for the moment for Aung San Suu Kyi. Without it, there will be no change in Myanmar at all." Picture shows a campaign poster for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, ahead of the general elections scheduled for November 8, in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Before she hit the dirt roads on Myanmar’s campaign trail, before she had given her first speech ahead of the elections on November 8, Burmese national icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took to the Internet to put her message out to the international community. “We hope that the whole world understands how important it is for us to have free and fair elections,” she said in a video message to the world in her signature crisp English. “Please help us by observing what happens before the elections, during the elections, and, crucially, after the elections.”

Ms. Suu Kyi or Daw Suu, also called Amay Suu (Mother Suu) in her country, was not making a simple appeal, but one based on history. The last time her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), stood for general elections was in 1990, an election it won by a landslide. But what followed after the elections was instead a rejection of the result by the ruling Myanmar Tatmadaw or military, and house arrest for Ms. Suu Kyi for a decade and a half. By evoking that memory in her message, the NLD leader indicated that despite four years of political reforms, including free and fair by-poll elections in 2012 that saw her enter Parliament, the lifting of crippling censorship on media houses, and the release of political prisoners, Myanmar’s democracy remains fragile, and as one journalist puts it, “not quite out of the shadow of jackboots.”

Imprint of jackboots

Technically speaking, those boots still retain a firm imprint on Myanmar’s government. The all-important Defence and Home portfolios remain with the Tatmadaw, regardless of who comes to power. What’s more, according to the 2008 constitution, 25 per cent of the seats in the Upper and Lower houses of Hluttaw (House of Representatives) will be nominated by the military. In order to form the government, the NLD will require at least 333 seats out of a total 664, which means it needs not 51 per cent of the vote but a whopping 67 per cent. On the other hand, the currently ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of President Thein Sein, which is a thinly disguised offshoot of the military-founded USDA, would need just 26 per cent or 173 seats to form a government, as it would automatically get the support of the military-nominated members.

“A landslide of this kind is very rare for any party in the world. NLD won 82 per cent of the vote in the 1990 election, so one can be hopeful that it is not impossible, but because the political landscape has changed so much since then, Daw Suu will have to work very hard,” the former United Nations representative for the self-styled NLD government in exile (RCGUB) Thaung Htun tells The Hindu. When asked if she hoped to surmount all the challenges she faces, Ms. Suu Kyi herself told an interviewer in the capital NayPyiTaw this month, “I have never believed in hope. I only count on endeavour”.

Changed political landscape

If the military’s continued grip on the process is the biggest external challenge to Ms. Suu Kyi, then the discontent of old NLD activists is her biggest internal challenge. Thaung Htun, a student activist and trained doctor who faced the military’s power during an uprising in 1988, returned to Yangon after living in exile for 25 years to find that that ‘changed political landscape’ had little place for him as well. Denied an electoral ticket for the NLD, he now runs a think tank where one of his programmes is to train young, new candidates from ethnic parties in electoral campaigning and governance. When asked if he is disappointed with the NLD’s rejection, 56-year-old Dr. Thaung, whose entirely white hair is an indicator of the hard times he has faced, says, “If you really love the country, you put personal feelings aside and have to think objectively on how change can happen. This election is a real opportunity to make change.”

The largest group of democracy activists affected by the junta crackdown in 1988, called the 88 generation, has been more vocal about its unhappiness after the NLD chose only one member of the group as a candidate for 2015. Editor of the Irrawaddy’s English operations, Kyaw Zwa Moe, is a former member, who served a 10-year sentence in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison. He says the strict discipline within the party and a single chain of command was leading to a “decline in NLD’s popularity”. “Many people are really upset with the NLD leadership. I’m trying to understand why [they sidelined so many]. NLD should have embraced the 88 generation and also other people. The weakness of the NLD is the inability to reach out to others,” he says.

National League for Democracy supporters campaign in rural Yangon. Photo: Suhasini Haidar

Others, however, say that as chairman of the party, Daw Suu is only looking at the winnability of candidates in what will be a crucial election. On her campaign run for the state legislature from Seikyi Khanaungto, a rural constituency on the outskirts of Yangon, NLD candidate San Dar Min is confident of her party’s chances. “We are not activists, we are now MPs,” this 88-generationer tells me. “So this kind of open criticism of the leadership is threatening the unity of the party.” As she hops on to the NLD campaign truck weaving its way through narrow and water-logged village lanes, her speech focusses on how they must vote for Suu Kyi for development, even as the famous NLD campaign songs from the 1990 get the crowd clapping and chanting “Amay Suu”. San Dar Min was herself elected in 2012 for a parliamentary seat in NayPyiTaw, but during this election, the NLD decided to make her switch to the state legislature, so as to strengthen its presence in the states. On November 8, Myanmar’s voters have to choose candidates for three ballots, including the Upper Hluttaw, Lower Hluttaw, and State/Division. While others have questioned the decision to move a popular and high-profile candidate like San Dar Min and about 50 others from the Hluttaw to their states, she herself tells me she has no doubt it’s for the best. “It is not for candidates to choose, but for Daw Suu to decide,” her campaign manager Kyaw Zin Oo tells me.

Challenge of ethnic parties

Ms. Suu Kyi’s next challenge comes from the so-called third front: ethnic parties who have a stronghold in each of their respective states. Myanmar is divided into seven divisions, mostly populated by the majority Bahmese or Bamar people, and seven states which are home to seven main ethnic groups with about 135 ethnic sub-groups: Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan. In the 2010 elections, that were boycotted by the NLD and as a result were largely seen as a sham, ethnic parties had contested and won many seats in the state elections. In the 2012 bypolls, which the NLD contested, it did well in the few ethnic seats that came up for election. As a result, many ethnic parties had urged the NLD to enter into a pre-poll alliance so the anti-regime vote is not divided, but the NLD has ruled that out, announcing it will contest 1,138 of the total of 1,171 official constituencies up for grabs.

“Why should ethnic people vote for a national party?” asks Khiang Mrat Kyaw, founder of the Rakhine or Arakanese news agency Narinjara, who thinks the NLD’s decision to rebuff ethnic parties was a mistake. “Suu Kyi’s popularity will draw the crowds, but when they go to vote, people in these states may vote for local parties,” he says, drawing parallels to the growth of state-specific political parties in India. Responding to that, Ms. Suu Kyi chose to kick off her campaign in Kayah state, and reached out to assuage ethnic concerns. “Even though we are competing against ethnic parties, that will not decrease the rights of ethnic people,” she reportedly told a rally in Shadaw, Kayah state. “If we can form government, we will serve the rights of ethnic people and protect them well.”

There are other challenges, not just to Ms. Suu Kyi in this campaign, but to all political parties seeking to oust the current USDP regime. While Myanmar has one of the highest literacy rates in Asia (92.7 per cent according to World Bank figures), it is also one of the poorest nations in Asia; ranking 149 among 186 nations rated in the 2013 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme. “These are people who have lived between poverty and fear of the regime for decades. Most of them don’t even know how to vote,” Nana Dar, a young volunteer with the New Myanmar foundation, says. Nana Dar is criss-crossing the country to about 100 constituencies to try and increase voter awareness of their choices, given that Myanmar has had only a handful of general elections and 2015 will be the first multiparty general elections since 1990. To try and increase voter awareness and to monitor the elections and counting, international groups like ANFREL (Asian Network for Free Elections) are conducting training workshops for voters, candidates and the media. “Concerns regarding possible attempts to curb media freedom during the campaign and the Election Day are becoming increasingly louder, especially after a brief ban on two media groups following the purging of Thura Shwe Mann, (the popular USDP leader). Besides, there have been some restrictions such as on criticising the military. However, until now the media has been reporting about the electoral process and also raising questions about the integrity of the process and there hasn't been any problem,” according to ANFREL country head Bidhayak Das, who intends to send out 30 international and local observers across the country on election day. With voters pleading ignorance and even apathy about the system, it will mean that NLD workers will have an even more difficult time bringing in voters from far-flung areas as they race to win the landslide the system dictates they need.

The cost of resistance

Perhaps the biggest challenge to Ms. Suu Kyi’s popularity has become her own silence. When she was elected to parliament in 2012, her win brought the world to its feet cheering for her. Before 2012, the Nobel Laureate was revered for her peaceful resistance that eventually made the most dreaded army bend. The resistance came at a huge personal cost, and the world grieved when she was unable to attend to her dying husband, or lost touch with her sons as a result of her incarceration. After 2012, Ms. Suu Kyi also became an icon of hope and voice for change for Myanmar’s authoritarian system, someone U.S. President Barack Obama called his “hero”. However, Ms. Suu Kyi has picked her causes deliberately since then, focussing on democratic reforms as a goal, even at the cost of ignoring burning issues like the treatment of Rohingya Muslims, believed to be immigrants in the Rakhine state, and the militant actions of extremist Buddhist groups against them. The NLD leader has been criticised, for example, for calling the riots in Rakhine state in 2012 and 2013 that left dozens of mostly Muslim victims dead and thousands homeless, “a law and order issue”. In August this year, the NLD didn’t speak on a slew of bills to ban polygamy, enforce population control, and ban conversions that many claim were aimed against the Muslim minority. And while the NLD has protested many alleged electoral malpractices ahead of the polls, Ms. Suu Kyi has made no mention of the government’s decision to disenfranchise lakhs of Rohingyas from the electoral rolls. The decision taken by the Union Election Commission (UEC) in March 2015 has meant even some former MPs can no longer vote. When the UEC also disqualified more than 100 candidates, mostly from the minority in the run-up to elections, the hardest hit was the Rohingya Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP) that saw only one of its 18 candidates eligible to run. The move prompted a protest from the U.S. State department that said it “risked undermining the confidence of the Burmese people and the international community in these elections.”

In contrast, the NLD, which hasn’t proposed even one Muslim candidate from the 4 per cent population, has stayed silent, attracting criticism from many of the western press that had idolised Ms. Suu Kyi in the past. Ms. Suu Kyi’s own response to international critics has been to ask why they haven’t spoken out against the autocratic moves of President Thein Sein’s government. “I would just like to remind you that I have been saying since 2012 that a bit of healthy scepticism would be very, very good and that too many of our western friends are too optimistic about the democratisation process here,” she said in an interview earlier this month.

In her defence, Dr. Thaung Htun says Ms. Suu Kyi is trapped from both sides of the conflict and needs to pick her battles. “She speaks very carefully so as not to jeopardise hopes for national reconciliation. That is why she doesn’t speak on every issue.” Ms. Suu Kyi’s supporters say that all these issues will be addressed in time, but winning the coming elections is the only priority for the moment. Without it, there will be no change in Myanmar at all. “There are many who are unhappy with the constitution and the system. But people accept that the election will happen under these terms whether they like it or not. So do you make the most out of it or not,” asks journalist Thin Le Win. Ms. Suu Kyi herself has accepted that regardless of the outcome of the vote on November 8, she cannot become Myanmar’s president given the constitutional bar on Myanmarese citizens with children of foreign nationality being nominated. That will need a two-thirds majority in the newly elected assembly to change, and is only one of the myriad changes Ms. Suu Kyi will need to effect once her party the NLD wins, as informal polls predict. “The dice is loaded against the Lady,” an NLD campaigner says. “Even so the Lady will win.”

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