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.”

The elections were also key to the changing relations between Burma and the West. The United States and the European Union had warned Burma’s president, Thein Sein, that the elections would be instrumental in determining if and when the international community will begin to lift the economic sanctions that have been imposed on the Burmese government since its military violently suppressed peaceful pro-democracy protestors in 1988.

The easing of these restrictions and the re-establishment of multilateral relations between the West and Burma is, in turn, part of a broader shift in US and EU foreign policy toward Burma—from isolation to engagement—as the West pushes to counter China’s growing presence in the region, usher in a process of human rights and democracy, and encourage investment by Western multinationals.

It now looks likely that the elections will lead to a gradual easing of sanctions. Some analysts have also speculated that the United States will upgrade its diplomatic presence in Burma and install an ambassador there as early as this summer. Signaling this détente, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Istanbul the day after the elections, said that the United States is committed to supporting Burma’s reforms. And the EU hinted that it will soon begin to ease sanctions. The foreign ministers at a regional summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held in Cambodia this week also supported the elections and pushed for dropping sanctions.

The polls have also helped the USDP consolidate its power and gain some of the international legitimacy it craves as it seeks to engage with the international community, receive much-needed technical assistance and aid from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and wean itself away from what it views as an over-reliance on Beijing. The USDP and the military have realized that economic liberalization is key to boosting economic development and revitalizing institutional capacity in a country that—despite being resource-rich—is one of the poorest in the region. Now that the polls have taken place largely free of controversy, the government and military will expect the West to reciprocate.

The by-elections were made possible by a complicated but significant thaw in relations between Burma, the NLD and the international community following the election of a quasi-military government in 2010. Under President Sein, the USDP initiated a series of important but limited reforms to signal its apparent commitment to democratization. These included allowing the NLD and Suu Kyi, as well as other opposition parties, to stand in the polls; the release of some prominent political prisoners; the easing of some media and censorship restrictions; the legalization of labor unions; and planned changes to investment laws. Burma has also demonstrated a commitment to reforming its exchange rate system by floating its currency, the kyat, for the first time—a key step to attract foreign investment. (Until April 1 the kyat was fixed to the US dollar at a rate of six kyats to one dollar, but the unofficial rate is far higher.)

These reforms point to a fundamental change of policy and ideology within the USDP, according to analysts. “They allowed Suu Kyi and the NLD to come back and run in the elections, to have inclusive politics,” says Win Min, a leading researcher on Burmese politics. “That’s the most important thing with the new government. In one year, they released almost all political prisoners… These are the figures that they were scared of before. It’s not just for getting sanctions removed, on the part of the USDP. There is something [else]. Sein has a new-generation mindset: ‘We have to work with the opposition to improve the country.’”

Yet once the post-election euphoria fades, important questions regarding the nature of governance remain unanswered: How far does this by-election measure up to tangible democratization? To what degree will the people really have power?

Some remain skeptical of the USDP and the military’s commitment to inclusive change. U Issariya, 36, a Buddhist monk who led the 2007 pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma and now lives in exile in the Thai-Burma border town of Mae Sod, says, “We want to know if Aung San Suu Kyi has any real power or not. After the elections, the military regime will say, ‘Please lift the sanctions and please help us on our economic way.’ [But] democracy means people power. We want to see [that].”

Significantly, the recent reforms made by the USDP have not threatened the military or the state’s political and economic interests. So far the changes have largely benefited the country’s urban elites—its businessmen and senior military and government figures—rather than the vast majority living in rural communities, who have been deprived of access to decent schools, universities, clinics and hospitals for decades. Political monks, students and NLD members also continue to report of being harassed and watched by the military intelligence.

And despite the seal of approval from international election monitors, there are signs that the USDP manipulated the vote to protect its interests. Voters in the northeastern state of Kachin, where armed conflict between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) resumed after a cease-fire collapsed last June, were denied the right to vote after the USDP announced that by-elections in three constituencies of Phakant, Moe Kaung and Bamaw would be postponed for “security reasons.” These areas were far from the regions scarred by conflict and led to speculation that the government canceled the Kachin polls as a warning to its opposition. A source said the move was made “to punish Tuja, an independent candidate, who is also close to the Kachin Independence Organization [the political arm of the KIA], the NLD and the NDF.”

Underpinning all this is the reality that the elections are framed within the 2008 Constitution. This guarantees the military veto powers over Parliament, 25 percent of all seats in the lower and upper houses of Parliament, and one-third of all seats in regional assemblies. So even if the NLD wins all the constituencies it contested, it will only secure approximately 6 percent of the seats in Parliament, according to analysts. The Constitution also denies opposition MPs, including parties representing ethnic nationalities, a level playing field, since it sets out a centralized vision of governance with no scope for devolution of power within a federal framework—a key demand of many of Burma’s ethnic communities.

Suu Kyi has pledged to navigate a course through this minefield. Though she has yet to be appointed a position in Parliament, she has openly condemned the military’s political involvement. Many of Burma’s people will now look to her to tackle the country’s crippling poverty and under-development, bring a sustainable end to armed ethnic conflict and reform the flawed Constitution.

It is a stance that will put her in direct opposition to the country’s influential generals and will invariably lead to greater public scrutiny of her policies. But the military and the USDP don’t see any threat, Win Min explains, since they remain in control of the government and Parliament. “The military will be willing to go along with constitutional changes that do not hurt military interests,” Min says. “But Aung San Suu Kyi will want to improve the social and economic situation first and then gradually look at the Constitution and military power. One of her main priorities is to reduce the military’s power…[but] do it gradually to make sure that the military does not feel threatened. The military will still be the dominant player, at least in the medium term.”

The real measure of the regime’s commitment to inclusive, structural change will be the generals’ willingness to allow constitutional amendments; reforms to tackle the nation’s debilitating poverty; freedom for hundreds of political prisoners; and prosecution for members of the army and government responsible for crimes against civilians, including rape, murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment and forced labor.

Some US lawmakers have said that sanctions should not be eased until these conditions are met. On April 2 New York Democratic Representative Joe Crowley, who has helped draft sanctions against Burma, said, “Far too many political prisoners are still locked behind bars, violence continues against ethnic minorities and the military dominates not only the composition but the structure of the government. Now is not the time for the international community to rush toward lifting pressure on Burma.”

Clearly, the by-elections were part of a long-term process, one that signals the onset of a form of parliamentary politics in Burma that will be dominated by senior military and USDP figures and businessmen even as they agree to share a limited degree of power with civilians. Perhaps the most these polls can herald is the gradual emergence of inclusive political space in time for the country’s next national elections, in 2015.

“The elections are a small chance for change but not enough,” says U Lin, a 61-year-old NLD member in exile in western Thailand who remains too frightened to return to Burma. “Even if nothing really changes now, what happens in 2012 will slowly lead to change and help things for the 2015 elections. Before we, in the NLD, had to work underground. Now Suu Kyi can work politically in the open. That is a huge difference."