Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi celebrate results outside the NLD party headquarters in Yangon, November 8, 2015.
Jorge Silva / Reuters

On November 8, 2015, Myanmar (also called Burma) held its first elections in 25 years. After five decades of brutal military rule, the opposition, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in elections that most observers declared free and relatively fair. Following the elections, many in Myanmar and abroad are hopeful that the generals will peacefully give up their central role in Myanmar’s government and that the country can make a historic transition to democracy.

Yet such expectations may be overly optimistic. The military continues to wield great power, the NLD has no experience managing large and complex bureaucracies, corruption remains widespread, and Myanmar’s relationship with China is fraught. The NLD’s victory is one of the most promising developments in Myanmar’s recent history, but there is still a long road ahead before the nation’s political future is secure.

A HISTORIC RESULT

Last month’s elections are Myanmar’s first since 1990, when the opposition won an overwhelming victory. Back then, the military junta simply disregarded the results and imprisoned the NLD’s leaders and activists. Although the military nominally transferred power to a civilian government in 2011, retired senior officers filled all of the major positions in the administration.

The NLD will have to transform itself into a party of government, after almost three decades in opposition.

This time around, regime officials and officers in the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar armed forces) appear to have underestimated the unpopularity of their party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Almost everyone outside the military predicted a big win for Suu Kyi’s NLD, but the USDP assumed that it had won a measure of popular backing after five years of economic and political liberalization. They considered their worst-case scenario—an NLD win with an absolute majority of seats—extremely unlikely.

Such a landslide did seem relatively unlikely for several reasons. First, the 2008 constitution, written by the generals to enshrine the Tatmadaw’s dominant role in Myanmar’s politics, granted the military’s representatives a quarter of the legislative seats. To win a majority, therefore, the NLD had to win not 51 percent but 67 percent of available seats.

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, attends Myanmar's first parliament meeting after the November 8 general elections
National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi attends Myanmar's first parliament meeting after the November 8 general elections, Naypyitaw, November 16, 2015.
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Second, the NLD did little to court Myanmar’s national minorities before or during the electoral campaign, and these minorities make up about a third of Myanmar’s population. The USDP, by contrast, invested a lot of money and effort trying to boost its popularity among ethnic minority groups, even making electoral deals with minority parties. Some observers expected they would receive substantial backing from these communities.

Third, Buddhist nationalists have become increasingly influential in recent years in what is a deeply devout country. Ashin Wirathu, the controversial leader of the Association for Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha in Burmese)—who has called himself the “Burmese bin Laden”—instructed his followers to vote for the USDP after his movement managed to extract some concessions from them in recent years, such as the halting of construction projects near pagodas and the passing of laws governing interfaith marriage, religious conversion, and monogamy. 

In the end, however, the NLD won the elections by a landslide. It secured 135 seats (60 percent of all seats and 80 percent of the 168 for which it could compete) in the 224-seat upper house. The USDP obtained only 12 seats, just two more than the ethnic Arakan National Party; smaller ethnic parties won the rest, each obtaining one to three seats. The results for the elections for the 440-seat lower house were similar: the NLD won 255 seats (58 percent of all seats and 77 percent of those contested), and the USDP won just 30, with ethnic parties taking the remainder. Turnout was high: slightly more than 80 percent of registered voters, more than 32 million people, cast their ballots.

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to the media,
Myanmar's National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to media about the general elections, Yangon, November, 2015.
Jorge Silva / Reuters

The NLD’s strategy vindicated its decision not to form alliances with smaller parties to win an absolute majority. Even in constituencies with a large proportion of ethnic minority voters, people tended to support the NLD rather than ethnic parties. And attempts by Buddhist nationalists to present a choice between Buddhism and Suu Kyi also backfired: as a recent survey indicated, Buddhists were just as likely to support the NLD as were people who identified as less religious. 

For the USDP, the elections were humiliating. Yet the fact that Myanmar’s generals seem to have accepted the result is promising, if surprising. The two most powerful people in Myanmar, President Thein Sein, an ex-general, and General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of Myanmar’s military, continued to insist, even after the result was clear, that the transition to civilian rule would go ahead smoothly

A LONG ROAD AHEAD

Opposition leader Suu Kyi, whom the constitution bars from becoming president because her husband was and her sons are British citizens, will select a new president from members of the legislature in February 2016. The current, military-backed government’s mandate will expire at the end of March 2016, at which point the NLD will officially take the reins. In the coming months, the NLD will have to transform itself into a party of government, after almost three decades in opposition.

There is still a long road ahead before the nation’s political future is secure.

So far, the NLD has been evasive about its policies and has offered little more than well-rehearsed platitudes about the “rule of law” and the need for “national reconciliation.” It will have to devise more concrete strategies to erase the damage that five decades of ruinous economic policies, political repression, international isolation, and ethnoreligious discrimination have wrought. In particular, four serious challenges lie ahead for the NLD.

First, the NLD will have to find a way to work with the military, which still retains great power. Aside from its guaranteed parliamentary presence, the army appoints one of the two vice presidents, holds three powerful ministries (borders, defense, and home affairs), dominates state institutions and bureaucracies, and remains deeply entrenched in the economy. Moreover, the commander in chief of the armed forces, one of the most powerful positions in the country, is not accountable to any civilian authority. The military’s budget, its business interests, and its conduct of the decades-long war against some of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have never come under civilian scrutiny, and most observers expect the Tatmadaw to resist any attempts to change the status quo. How well Suu Kyi and her administration can work with the army will determine her regime’s success.

Second, the NLD has little experience running any bureaucracies, let alone a large, complex, and ethnically diverse country. Most individuals in the NLD’s leadership are democracy activists, and many suffered years of imprisonment in the military junta’s jails. For all their courage, however, few of them are well educated, and even fewer possess the skills needed to manage a ministry or an enterprise. The new regime will have to work out how to deal with the officials who are currently in place, many of whom owe their positions to the military or are retired officers themselves. The NLD should be open to working with such figures because it will otherwise struggle to fill key positions with competent loyalists from its own ranks.

Third, the NLD will have to tackle deep-seated corruption. Here, too, the NLD will have to cooperate with the military. Although many high-ranking army officers are crooked, not all of them are. Establishing a working relationship with honest regime stalwarts, such as the current Speaker of the upper house, Khin Aung Myint, who has called corruption the biggest challenge facing the country, would benefit an NLD anticorruption campaign.

Finally, the NLD will have to manage Myanmar’s relationship with China. China is by far the country’s biggest trade partner and source of investment and was a steadfast supporter of the military junta. Nevertheless, Beijing’s pragmatic leaders—anticipating an NLD win—hosted Suu Kyi on a highly publicized visit last summer. Although Chinese officials are worried about their relative loss of influence in Myanmar with the arrival of Suu Kyi’s more Western-oriented regime, over the last few years the relationship between the military-backed government and the Chinese has been fraught. Myanmar showed little enthusiasm for China’s “One Belt, One Road” regional initiative, a trade and infrastructure network along China's ancient trade routes. Tatmadaw generals were incensed by Chinese interference in their attempts to reach a cease-fire with its insurgent ethnic groups: China has armed and trained some ethnic armies, such as the United Wa State Army, and pressured others, such as the Kachin Independence Army, not to sign peace treaties with the regime.

Despite these tensions, and the unpopularity of the Chinese among the Burmese public, China remains in a good position to help foster much-needed economic growth in Myanmar. The new government must fix its frayed ties with Beijing, while resisting Chinese attempts to exert too much pressure on its smaller neighbor. One of the few areas where the junta excelled was in maintaining the nation’s sovereignty, and seeking the generals’ advice on this subject might be beneficial both for Myanmar and for the NLD-Tatmadaw relationship.

The NLD will confront many other challenges, from reaching a peace treaty with insurgent ethnic groups to restructuring the courts and reforming the public health-care and education systems. After half a century of inept military rule, there are few aspects of political, social, and economic life that are not in need of wholesale reform. Even with the assistance of the international community, this will be no easy task, and the new government will have to temper the hopes of an expectant population. Suu Kyi and her party have only passed the first hurdle.

  • ZOLTAN BARANY is Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas and the author of How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why (Princeton University Press, 2016).
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