A Fragile Victory for Democracy in Myanmar


Young women in Myanmar

The November 8th election in Myanmar not only has implications for the political situation in Myanmar, but also in the wider South East Asian Region.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a majority of seats in the election securing victory over the military ruling party the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The election, which was watched closely by international observers, has ended nearly 50 years of military rule in Myanmar and has been lauded as a historic victory for democracy despite irregularities at some of the polling stations.

While these irregularities seem to have only impacted a small number of polling stations, the lead up to the election had been marred by accusations of voter fraud and the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya minority from participating in the vote.

The denial of the vote to the Roningya minority and the systematic human rights abuses against the Muslim minority reflects a wider anti-Islam campaign, encouraged by the ruling USDP party and run by the hardline Buddhist nationalist movement, the Ma Ba Tha arguing that the country’s Buddhist identity is under threat from Islam.

It was unknown in the lead up to the election how much of an impact Ma Ba Tha’s message would resonate with voters, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to speak out on the persecution of the Rohingyas and the violence perpetrated against them leading up to the election indicates that it resonated with voters and that the NLD was afraid of alienating and losing religious votes on the issue.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingyas has been widely condemned internationally. Despite hopes that the plight of the Rohinga will change under the NLD’s leadership, it remains to be seen whether this issue will be tackled in the new parliament. The NLD also faces pressure from the Arakan National Party (ANP) who has been accused of stoking anti-Muslim sentiment and calling for the Rohingya to be deported. The ANP won 22 of 29 national seats in Rakhine (the region where the majority of Rohinga live) and hold 22 of 35 seats in the state’s regional assembly.

Navigating the complex political and social make up of Myanmar will be one of the challenges that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD face when they take power in March next year.

There are over 135 ethnic groups recognized in Myanmar, (the Rohingya is not one of them), many of which will be hoping that the victory of the NLD will give them more of a say on their future. Communities in Shan State, for example, are continuing to endure fighting between Shan rebels and the Myanmar military. Much of the fighting in Shan state has occurred because of the lack of representation in the political process and there is a risk that there will be continued post-election conflict if they are not given a voice on the national stage.

The historic victory of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi has been won based on the belief that there will be significant change both economically and socially in South East Asia’s poorest nation.  

The challenges that the new government faces will include balancing the need for greater foreign investment, creating jobs and infrastructure, modernizing the health and education system, addressing environmental concerns, creating tangible ceasefire agreements and creating a more stable and equitable society with a greater voice for ethnic minorities.

Further, there are still questions about whether the ruling party and the military will fully relinquish power to the NLD. Constitutional changes made in 2008 mean that the military will still hold 25 percent of the seats in the lower and upper parliament, 30 percent of seats in regional parliaments and have full control over the Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs ministries.

Whilst the NLD has won 390 of the national parliament’s 664 seats, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from being President and any constitutional change which would see the influence of the military diminish will not be easily achieved.

It remains to be seen whether Myanmar will follow the path of other Asian countries such as Indonesia that successfully transitioned from military rule in 1998 or whether it will follow the path of Thailand or Pakistan where the political systems remain unstable.

Despite assurances by the ruling party that they will respect the will of the people there are still doubts about whether there will be a smooth transition.

The historic election result in Myanmar is just the beginning of what will be a fragile and delicate democratic transition for a country that remains at the crossroads of democratic progress.


Image credit: Kimtetsu/Fickr

Rebecca Devitt

University of Melbourne Alumni

Published Date
November 23, 2015