Election optimism in Myanmar haunted by spectre of 1990


The shadow of military intervention still looms large over Myanmar’s electorate despite the first openly contested polls in over two decades

Aung San Suu Kyi and her then fledging National League for Democracy won a landslide election victory in 1990 after decades of military rule.

However, the military refused to relinquish power and Suu Kyi, who was arrested the year before the election, spent a total of 15 years under house arrest.

Now two and a half decades later, Myanmar is once again heading for an election that will be contested by all major players.

Despite the optimism slowly taking hold of the country, the spectre of 1990 still hangs over many citizens.

“I think the NLD will win in a landslide, but the authorities will manipulate the election results so that they can control the country for five more years,” said Myint San, a 38-year-old living in Yangon’s Dala Township.

“I will still vote for the NLD because I believe in [Suu Kyi],” he said.

“Of course, we are worried that the [military] will step in again, if the NLD wins elections,” said Moe Naing, a taxi driver in central Yangon.

Moe Naing was just 4 years old when Aung San Suu Kyi won the 1990 election but he says that among his parents’ generation there is an expectation that the military will find a way to hold on to power if the opposition wins.

It is a concern not lost on the NLD and its leaders.

Suu Kyi told foreign reporters days before the election that the international community must do its part to ensure accountability after elections.

“There is such a [long period of time] between elections and the forming of a new government. Nowhere else in the world is there such a gap,” she said. “Certainly it is something [about] which we all will be concerned.”

Analysts have also been quick to state that the election is just the beginning of a long process if the NLD is to truly rule.

“The election process cannot in itself provide change. That has to be achieved through dialogue with all parties,” said Ma Thida, a writer and human rights activist.

“The barganing is not only between the NLD and the military or the NLD and the USDP [but] with the ethnic groups, too.”

The army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the ruling party.

Political commentator Yan Myo Thein echoed the sentiments, saying that Suu Kyi will need to consider a political deal when forming a government.

“All-inclusive political dialogue in the post-election period [will] minimise the chances that the military steps in [again],” he said.

Suu Kyi appears to be heeding such lessons, saying many times over the course of the election campaign that if the NLD were to win, hers would be a government “of national reconciliation” and warning against unrealistic expectations.

“Democracy is not about winners taking all and losers losing everything,” she said. “I think many Western countries are too optimistic about this election. We need a healthy dose of scepticism.”

For common people like Moe Naing and Myint San, they maintain that they and many others stand ready to do whatever it takes to bring about change.

“I am just an ordinary person, but if there were a mass demonstration against election results, I will join it because that’s all I can do for my country,” said Myint San.