Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves to supporters before giving a speech during her campaign in her constituency of Kawhmu township outside Yangon, September 21, 2015.
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Five years ago, Myanmar’s ruling junta under General Than Shwe began a cautious but promising move away from a nearly five-decade old military dictatorship, loosening control, opening the country’s economy, and releasing political prisoners, as well as Aung San Suu Kyi, an opposition leader and chairman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), from house arrest. In just a month, on November 8, Myanmar (also called Burma) will hold its first general parliamentary elections since that transition began. The elections will be a critical moment in the country’s modern history—they will test the military government’s readiness for continued democratization and commitment to genuine democracy. The vote will also reveal the NLD’s capacity to limit the political power of the generals who still rule the country.

Overall, Myanmar has changed for the better since political and economic liberalization began in 2011. Even the pessimists in Burma admit that their country has been put on a better path. The major cities are full of construction sites for condominium high-rises and shopping malls. Traffic was already notoriously congested, and the number of cars has more than doubled since 2010. New businesses line the streets, from fancy shops selling laptops and smartphones to humble street-side noodle stalls. Tourism, although still modest, has expanded greatly and is growing quickly—the country saw three million visitors in 2014 and five million are projected for this year. The economy is projected to grow by 8.7 percent this year after last year’s healthy 6.5 percent increase.

Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon city, September 23, 2015.
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Still, Myanmar remains Southeast Asia’s poorest country: 2.5 million children (from an overall population of 51.4 million) are malnourished. According to the United Nations Development Program, 26 percent of Burmese—70 percent of whom reside in rural areas live in crushing destitution. Educational and public health standards have not improved in recent years: no wonder, since those sectors receive only four percent and two percent of the national budget, respectively (one of the lowest in the region). On top of that, the country’s new wealth is not flowing to its general population. Approximately 10,000–15,000 high-ranking military officers, their retired colleagues, and their cronies still own the vast majority of the country’s hotels, enterprises, and factories. When I spoke with a former economic affairs minister about that figure (less than a tenth of a percent of its population controlled 80 percent of its commerce) his reply was, “Only 80?” It is clear that lifting international sanctions and opening the country to the outside world benefited the military more than anyone else.

One of the more promising signs of change is the blossoming of civil society. There are thousands of new local organizations that engage in a wide array of extremely diverse cultural, educational, political, and social activities. In addition, hundreds of NGOs from the United States, Europe, and Japan now work in Myanmar on a broad range of issues, such as democracy promotion and disaster relief. The media, too, has become freer, and an array of new newspapers and magazines is now available. There are of course, journalists who still practice self-censorship in order to avoid stepping on the army’s toes since those who do not sometimes pay with their lives. In September 2014, the military admitted to killing a reporter who was covering the renewed fighting between ethnic Karen rebels and the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army. The number of political prisoners—many of them student activists—has increased since the end of 2014—from 78 incarcerated and 203 awaiting trial to 108 incarcerated and 459 awaiting trial in August 2015. Human rights abuses and daily humiliations by soldiers are still a fact of life in many remote rural areas. Corruption remains rampant. Transparency International rated Myanmar 156 out of 175 countries in its latest corruption report.

Suu Kyi remains an icon of democracy, but has not turned out to be an astute politician.


One reason the country has not benefited from its freer and more open government is that the NLD has failed to unite the opposition behind its common goal of reducing the power of the military elites. In particular, Suu Kyi remains an icon of democracy, but has not turned out to be an astute politician. First off, the NLD is an intensely personalized party. It rests heavily on Suu Kyi’s appeal and charisma, and as a result, is excessively centralized. Personnel who disagree with the top leadership are marginalized. Suu Kyi is said to trust few people beyond her inner circle and is thus closed to outside influence and advice. Although the constitution prevents her from becoming president, Suu Kyi, now 70 years old and not of robust health, has failed to groom, let alone name, a successor.

The NLD’s biggest shortcoming has been its refusal to enter into electoral alliances and its reluctance to unite a deeply fragmented opposition, which includes numerous civil society organizations and political parties representing ethnic groups. Late this summer, Suu Kyi surprised political analysts and disappointed democracy activists by ruling out an alliance with “The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society,” perhaps the country’s most respected civil society group, many of whom participated in the 8888 uprising—so called because it took place on August 8, 1988—against the military. The NLD also rejected the bids of 17 top 88 Generation activists (including Ko Ko Gyi, a venerated rising political star) to join its ranks for the upcoming November election. It is now too late for these 88 Generation activists to compete in the elections on their own. Many believe Suu Kyi rejected them because she considered the group and its leaders personal rivals who would deflect attention away from her. The absence of members of this group from the electoral ballots—many of them smart, capable leaders, who were political prisoners—is a sad commentary on the state of the country’s democratic opposition.

A woman sells picture of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and National League for Democracy party logos, September 5, 2015.
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

The opposition has also failed to tap the support of the country’s many ethnic minorities. Myanmar’s population is a complex ethnic mosaic, only 68 percent of which is comprised of the majority Bamar people. The government puts the rest of the distinct ethnic groups, some 125 of them, into seven “major national ethnic races.” Several of these communities have been at war with the government for long periods, some since the country’s 1948 independence from the British. A ceasefire agreement has long been in the works and the government, to boost its chances at the polls, has attempted to get the agreement signed by various ethnic armies prior to the elections. At the moment, it appears unlikely that any such thing will happen because several belligerent groups are holding out for better deals, want to receive preferential treatment, or are unwilling to unconditionally lay down their arms.

Given their anti-regime stance, the numerous ethnic groups and their even more numerous political parties would seem to be another natural ally of the NLD. Yet they, too, have been antagonized. Not that this is the first time. During the 1990 election, the NLD promised not to run its own candidates in the constituencies contested by minority candidates, but then reneged on that promise. This time, the NLD leadership has urged ethnic communities to vote for NLD candidates (a few of them are members of ethnic minorities) rather than the candidates of their own parties, in order not to “fragment the democratic vote.” But the NLD’s move is largely self-serving and the ethnic groups have long been mistreated by the NLD. One of the big questions of the upcoming elections is whether these minority groups will heed the NLD’s call.

Tellingly, not one of the NLD’s thousand-plus candidates is a Muslim, even though one of the party’s founders, the charismatic and popular Maung Thaw Ka, was. Suu Kyi has been heavily criticized by international human rights organizations for not raising her voice against the appalling state-sanctioned discrimination of the Rohingya people, a 1.3 million-strong Muslim minority. Brad Adams, the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, noted, “One has to be suspicious or concerned about what her views are.” And, as Anna Roberts of the Burma Campaign UK pointed out, “Many people have been disappointed she hasn’t been more outspoken.” The human rights groups are right, but virtually every expert on Burmese politics agrees that publicly defending them would be tantamount to electoral suicide owing to the near-universal public opposition to granting the Rohingya citizenship. Speaking up for the Rohingyas would also risk alienating the approximately half million Buddhist monks who remain influential in Myanmar’s mostly rural and deeply devout society. In recent years, Buddhist nationalists have been quite effective in extracting concessions from the government, which has spared no effort to appease them.

Than Tun, Pike Htwe, and Maung Maung Htay are spokepersons for the Union Solidarity and Development Party, August 13, 2015.
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters


The opposition’s inability to establish a broad electoral alliance is even more worrisome because the military remains a formidable adversary. The 2008 constitution, which was written by the ruling generals, reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for Tatmadaw appointees. The 2010 parliamentary vote, a heavily rigged affair, ended in the massive victory of the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Although some 40 parties competed at the polls, the NLD boycotted the sham elections from which the junta barred international observers. In the 2012 by-elections, the NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested. In the current parliament’s 664 total seats—counting both houses together—the military is assigned 166 seats and the USDP has 336. That is more than 75 percent of the seats.

Given that 75 percent of parliament is needed to approve constitutional amendments, it is nearly impossible to make constitutional changes. This past summer, the NLD campaigned unsuccessfully to lower that threshold to 70 percent. Furthermore, the constitution also gives control of the Home Affairs Ministry, as well as the position of Commander-in-Chief, to active-duty generals. The two most powerful people in Myanmar, Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and President Thein Sein continue to believe, or at least publicly declare, that the army’s guidance is critical for preserving the country’s stability since the country is still politically “immature.”

As a result, the November elections, which will be internationally monitored, are likely to be relatively fair but fierce. Although 92 parties have registered, the choice is fundamentally between the NLD and the USDP, the democratic opposition and the authoritarian regime. There is little doubt that the NLD will win and win big, but the key question is whether it will garner two-thirds of the open seats. If it can—a tall order given the military’s automatic hold on one-quarter of the seats—it will undoubtedly continue its drive to reform the constitution.

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