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Campaigning in Burma’s forthcoming elections is now only a week away, although Aung San Suu Kyi already appears to have hit the campaign trail. All indications are that it is going to be a very bitter battle.
More importantly the tone set during this period in the lead up to the polls on 8 November will affect what happens afterwards – no matter what the actual results are. This is also likely to scare business, as a measure of instability is also likely to be the result.
The campaign of the National League for Democracy (NLD), “Time for Change” certainly captures the prevailing mood all across the country. But given the crisis within the party over the candidate selection process, the message to the electorate is do not consider who the constituency candidate is, but vote for the peacock flag and its leader.
“Our motto is a vote for the NLD, is a vote for Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Win Htein – currently an MP and very close to the NLD leader. He told me that he is originally from the Insein area in Yangon [Rangoon], whereas he stood for the by-election in 2012 for Meitikla where no one knew him.
“’Who are you?’ They said,” he told me recently. “So I said, do you know Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? Do you love her? Then vote for me, I work for her!” He had an overwhelming victory as a result.
This approach will certainly bring people to the polls to vote for the Nobel laureate. But will it be enough for the landslide victory Aung San Suu Kyi expects? She has been confidently telling diplomats that the NLD will win some eighty percent of the seats that are up for election – that would give her party some 60 percent of the total since 25 percent of the parliamentary seats are reserved for soldiers nominated by the commander-in-chief.
“We’ll assuredly win,” said Win Htein confidently.
However an NLD win would put Aung San Suu Kyi into direct conflict with the military, and rather than bringing stability would cause increased uncertainty over the future, and further depress the economic outlook in the country. Businesses, investors and manufacturers are already complaining about stagnation and are hesitant about the future because of the forthcoming elections.
The NLD has also alienated the country’s Muslim population – around an estimated 4 percent of the country’s 51 million – by banning the selection of Muslim candidates, even in predominantly Muslim areas. This has meant some high profile candidates were turned down. The order came from the party’s top leaders.
Fear of angering the Buddhist nationalists – especially the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, which is better known by its Burmese-language acronym Ma-Ba-Tha, which includes the firebrand monk Ashin Wirathu – convinced the party’s leaders to exclude Muslims from their constituency list.
“It wasn’t easy and involved a lot of soul-searching,” said a member of the party’s central executive, who declined to be identified.
In the end though the most likely outcome of the election is a hung parliament – with the NLD the largest party, but without an absolute majority.
“It will be a coalition government, which means weak government, though it must include the military,” told Dr Phone Win, who runs a micro-finance company in Yangon, giving credit facilities to some 2,000 SMEs, told Asia Focus. “This could increase freedom as the government can only concentrate on a few private sectors, which would reduce bureaucratic interference and increase opportunities for all.”
A hung parliament and coalition government means the NLD will have to count on the other smaller parties and the ethnic groups in parliament to put Aung San Suu Kyi in the driving seat – to elect the president, form the government and push for constitutional change.
“She needs the nationalities to be able to do anything in parliament,” Khun Htun Oo, leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), said in an interview this week. “We’ll support her; we won’t haggle with the military.” But the NLD’s aggressive stance in some ethnic areas may alienate other parties – “we asked the NLD to consider an electoral alliance,” said Khun Htun Oo, “but they ignored us.”
Unhappy though they may be, most of the ethnic parties won’t side with the military.
“It is the widespread hatred of the military, and what they have done to the country and people over the last sixty years, that will give the NLD its overwhelming electoral edge,” said the political commentator and former political prisoner, Dr Yan Myo Thein.
But more worrying for the post-election period is the Lady’s concerted effort to make this a two-way fight – between democrats and the military. She has repeated this mantra several times over the last few weeks, notably after a series of proposed constitutional changes were effectively vetoed by the military MPs in parliament. It will win her popularity and votes for sure. But may handicap her in the longer run – after the election.
During the combined campaign to change the constitution last year with the 88 Group, they warned her not to antagonize the army and to resist confronting them head on. She ignored their advice and angered the military leaders, especially Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. As a result he cancelled a planned meeting with her in June – which she had been seeking for nearly two years. Keeping communications channels open with the army is essential.
This is critical as the army is going to be in the “king makers” in Burma’s future political landscape after the elections. Already former senior military officers, turned academic and analysts, are looking at post-poll scenarios – on how to ensure the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi are not in the driving seat. While the top military brass wont talk to the Lady at the moment – directly or indirectly – they would have no trouble negotiating with her after the election results are known, said a former military officer on condition of anonymity.
That is one of the reasons the speaker and acting chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Shwe Mann had to be sidelined now, because of the fear that his close relationship with the Lady would hamper their continued hold on power. As a former senior general in the army before the 2010 elections, Shwe Mann viewed by the military hierarchy as a traitor.
While Daw Suu must be taken into account in any post-election negotiations – especially if she gains a significant proportion of seats – much rests on her actions and attitude towards the arm in the meantime as to whether she gets included or excluded. A more conciliatory approach to the army would not lessen her electoral popularity, but would give her a stronger hand in the fraught post-election dialogue that will follow the results.
The danger is that if she exceeds expectations and wins a majority in parliament – or close to it – the elite may be forced to take the “coup” option and follow the Thai model of democracy. Although Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has publicly declared that the army would respect the election results, other important leaders in government have told visiting diplomats that a “constitutional coup” could not be ruled out if things did not go their way. The more belligerent the Lady is towards the army, the more likely this is scenario that will materialise.
This too would be the worst possible outcome for businesses in Burma. Foreign investment and aid would dry up. “Future foreign investment would disappear and many international organizations would withdraw their financial and technical support from Burma,” said Professor Sean Turnell – an academic and expert on the Burma economy, based at Macquarie University in Australia. “A crony-capitalist oligarchy will not be able to develop the country; prosperity in the 21st Century will depend upon a country’s human capital, but this will not be realized in a state that prefers martial law over the creativity of a free people.”
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Burma and a former BBC World Service News Editor for Asia. Reprinted from the Bangkok Post with the kind permission of the author.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.