Democracy in Myanmar

A Long Way to Go

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.


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

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