Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi receives flowers as she addresses supporters and reporters from behind the gates of the National League for Democracy (NLD) office in Yangon April 2, 2012. REUTERS/staff
The April 1 by-elections in Burma received global attention as a “groundbreaking” barometer of the country’s commitment to democracy. Although the extent of that commitment remains in question, the polls were significant in several ways.
In a nation dominated by a military that seized power in 1962, the elections, only the third in half a century, were a welcome step toward inclusive politics. More than 6 million people were eligible to vote for candidates representing seventeen parties. The polls took place in forty-five constituencies, as parties competed for seats in the Parliament’s lower house.
The frontrunners included the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP); the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD); the National Democratic Force (a splinter group that broke off from the NLD in 2010); and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (which represents one of Burma’s largest ethnic groups).
Few were surprised when Burma’s Election Commission announced on April 3 that the NLD had won forty of the contested seats, including that of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who had contested a seat in Kawhmu township, south of Burma’s largest city, Yangon. (The results for the remaining five seats have not been announced.) Suu Kyi’s popularity as the NLD leader and daughter of nationalist revolutionary Bogyoke Aung San has been well chronicled. The fact that she spent the majority of the past twenty-one years under house arrest may have kept her under the scrutiny of successive military governments, but it also bolstered her popularity at home and in the West.
As thousands of voters in Yangon celebrated on Sunday when it became clear that she had won, Suu Kyi said in a statement that her success was a “victory of the people.” She added, “It is natural that the NLD members and their supporters are joyous at this point. However, it is necessary to avoid manners and actions that will make the other parties and members upset. It is very important that NLD members take special care that the success of the people is a dignified one.”
Though reports had surfaced of the harassment of some NLD election monitors during the polls and Suu Kyi had warned the vote would not be “free and fair,” international observers commented that they had not seen widespread electoral interference (although their mandate was restricted to certain areas).
The elections helped create a sense of momentum among many of Burma’s 59 million people, who now expect that gradual political reform will take place. Before the polls, Ko Myint Win, a tire supplier from Yangon who was in Thailand with his wife and two children, said, “I will vote on Sunday and will vote for Suu Kyi. She knows about the world and is very well educated. She has good ideas. Our leaders before, they were not educated. We have so many resources, jewels, gas, oil, and we are still poor. I think things will get better. We hope so for a better future for the next generation.”