World·Analysis

This time Burma's generals may finally have to admit defeat

Once again the party of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has defeated Burma's ruling military at the ballot box, and this time it looks like they may actually get a chance to rule, Patrick Brown writes. Now will come the hard part.

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi defeats Burma's military rulers, again. Now the hard part

Supporters of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy watch the election results on Monday in Rangoon. (Khin Maung Win/Associated Press)

In Burma's cacophony of election day comment, two words uttered by the acting chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, Htay Oo, turned all the rest into background noise.

 "We lost," he said.

After more than 50 years of military misrule, this concession from the head of the army's political party, himself a former general, as he lost his seat, was what people were longing to hear.

Enterprising street vendors flooded the capital with answering T-shirts reading "We won" over a picture of the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The commander-in-chief , Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, followed up by telling state media that "there's no reason not to accept the results."

Indeed, these are encouraging signs that a transition to civilian rule may finally be possible, but Suu Kyi warned her supporters not to be too jubilant too soon.

The 70-year-old democracy icon and her party are used to election victories. But they are also used to those victories being followed by disappointment.

For 25 years, since her first landslide win in 1990, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been prevented from forming a government.

She was released from many years of house arrest in 2010, when the ruling generals began a series of reforms leading up to this election.

Those reforms included a new constitution and the formation of a parliament under rules rigged to make sure Suu Kyi's NLD remained in opposition.

The generals swapped their uniforms for business suits, transforming the military junta into a "civilian" party, the USDP.

Demanding their due

In addition to the seats won by soldiers in suits who contest elections, a quarter of the seats in parliament is reserved for the army, as are the ministries of defence, interior and border security.

There is also a constitutional amendment barring anyone with foreign family connections from the presidency, which is aimed specifically at Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was British, as are her two sons.

Myanmar's National League for Democracy party leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to supporters Monday after general elections showed her part on the way to a landslide win in the country's first free general election in 25 years. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Theoretically, all of these impediments to a democratic transition can be overridden by an absolute majority in parliament, achievable with the magic number of about 70 per cent of the votes.

There are fears though, that, faced with this prospect, the army may renege on handing over power, as it has many times before.

The early results of Sunday's election have given Suu Kyi's party a clear mandate, but the legal and constitutional defences erected by the generals make it difficult to know whether she'll really be able to exercise it.

That said, a charismatic leader who has been an international symbol for human rights, democracy and resistance to dictatorship for a quarter of a century may be about to take control of a country she has been prepped to serve almost her entire life.

Since being released five years ago and allowed to resume active political life, she has been treading very cautiously.

Many human rights activists have been disappointed by her refusal to speak out against the persecution of Burma's Muslim Rohingya minority. Her defenders point out that she has been constrained by the need to avoid stepping on the generals' toes.

That excuse will no longer wash, however, if the generals' go back to barracks and the civilians really do take over in the country also known as Myanmar.

If Suu Kyi the democracy crusader gets a pass because of political realities, a ruling Aung San Suu Kyi will owe a country with some 135 distinct ethnic groups clear and principled leadership, particularly in the face of anti-Muslim pogroms and sputtering insurrections in several regions.

Now what

For all the progress of the past few years, her party will inherit a country with enormous problems.

Opening the doors to the global economy has left the country vulnerable to the international rape of its resources and environment, with neighbouring China leading the charge.

I can recall, back in 1990, being in Rangoon just after that election and finding it particularly odd that nothing much was happening in the wake of the huge opposition victory.

At the time, Suu Kyi was under house arrest, and the generals were shocked by the defeat and did not know how to react.

Her party, unsure what to do, did nothing, which gave the military time to regroup and annul the result. Here's what I wrote in a book some years later:

"In hindsight, it seems to me that if everyone in Rangoon who was sick to death of military rule had marched to Aung San Suu Kyi's house on election day 1990, they could possibly have liberated her and claimed their election victory… a refusal to take no for an answer might have prevailed over a demoralized, confused and indecisive junta."

Twenty-five years on, the mood is very different. The people have spoken again, and this time they are out on the streets demanding their due.

About the Author

Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts

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