Nov. 9, 2015
Voters in Myanmar are eagerly awaiting the final results of Sunday's landmark general election, the first since decades of military rule ended in 2011. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi appears confident her party is on the cusp of victory.
“At the moment, the official results from the ballot count are not out yet, but I think you all have an idea of the results,” said the National League for Democracy leader. She called on her supporters not to provoke rival candidates who have been defeated.
Election officials are slowly announcing the results. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, or NLD, won in the first 12 constituencies where results have been released. NLD party members put forward their own projections based on reports from observers at vote-counting stations.
“Our party has won over 70 percent of seats nationwide. I believe we have secured the necessary number to form a government,” said senior NLD member Win Htein. The NLD needs to win more than two-thirds of the contested seats to take the reins of power. A quarter of parliamentary seats are allocated to the military, which amended the constitution while in power to ban anyone with a foreign spouse or child from becoming president. Suu Kyi's sons have British nationality.
The acting chairman of the ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party has conceded defeat. Htay Oo told reporters his party accepts the results without any reservations.
NEWSROOM TOKYO’s Sho Beppu in Yangon spoke to co-host Aki Shibuya live from Myanmar’s commercial capital.
Shibuya: Sho, what’s happening over there?
Beppu: I just passed by the headquarters of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, and there was a huge number of supporters gathering around the building, all waiting anxiously to hear from the leadership about the election results. On the other hand, officials from the election commission are planning a press conference later this afternoon, but local reports say we can expect only to hear some preliminary results. There are pieces of information coming out from various sources, but the country is anxiously waiting to learn the answers to the most important question: Even if the NLD is winning, do they cross the two-thirds threshold that will give them a majority in the parliament?
Shibuya: How did the voting go yesterday?
Beppu: It’s difficult to say if the elections were carried out perfectly yesterday. International observers, including a team from Japan, have not yet made official announcements. Local media are reporting that there were some problems, for example with incomplete voter lists, and some irregularities, but the voting process was generally smooth. I spent the day visiting some polling stations and meeting candidates.
Voters waited in long lines for their chance to enter the polls, which opened early in central Yangon. Many were excited to have a say in their country’s future in the first openly contested election in 25 years. "I'm eager to vote. I don't want to miss this opportunity,” said one woman. “I believe that our votes will help make the lives of the younger generations better,” said a male voter.
The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, led by President Thein Sein, has been talking about its achievements in the past years during the leadup to the election. Meanwhile, the NLD, led by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Suu Kyi, is calling for change. The country is divided, but both sides have to face the same challenge of lifting the country out of poverty.
Myanmar is often touted as "the last frontier" for foreign investors. But a recent wave of economic growth has yet to reach the rural areas that are home to 70% of the population. Many villagers leave to work in Singapore and Thailand, and families rely on the money they send back.
At a village two hours’ drive from Yangon, Thi Ha Soe, 32, says he has been struggling to support his family since his father passed away 14 years ago. He earns about 80 dollars a month as a day laborer, and half of the family's earnings are used to repay debts.
He says he wanted to send his younger sister, Pan Ei Thus, to university, but she had to quit high school last year. "I feel sad when I see my friends studying at school... I want to be a nurse someday,” laments the 17-year-old. "I can't live like this,” says her older brother. “I hope the new government will focus on improving the economy and the education system.”
As the election results become known, the focus in Myanmar will turn to how members of parliament will form a government. Aung San Suu Kyi said during the campaign that she would be "above the president" if the NLD won enough seats.
There is growing concern about how the military-backed USDP will react to the election results. Shein Myint, a USDP candidate who ran for a seat in Yangon, says the party is prepared for any turmoil. "Many people are worried about the lack of experience of the NLD,” he says. “We'll defend the people if the situation becomes unstable."
Pro-democracy activist and magazine proprietor Aung Zaw says people in Myanmar are unsatisfied with President Thein Sein’s reforms and are hoping for meaningful change. “I think people here feel that same old government leaders who have governed the country, the last 20 years, 30 years, changed their outfits and continue to govern the country. Those same people are very oppressive and very corrupt and continue to remain in power. I think they want this government to go away,” he says.
While Suu Kyi's call for change has widespread support, Aung Zaw says it will not be quick or easy to upend decades of military control. “Ordinary Burmese people remain very skeptical of what change will happen to this country, the military, this government so entrenched in power and deeply very corrupt,” says the editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy. “That's why...some people are saying - I don't say that - coalition government will be the best outcome. And Aung San Suu Kyi and the government will have to negotiate.”
Despite Myanmar’s recent economic boom, more than one-in-four of the population still lives below the poverty line, and less than one-in-three has access to electricity.
Leaders face another challenge in unifying a country that is home to more than 130 ethnic minorities. Armed ethnic rebels have been fighting the government for decades, and Thein Sein's peacemaking efforts remain incomplete.
Suu Kyi made a point of campaigning in regions dominated by ethnic minorities and made stops in the country's most underdeveloped regions. She pledged to introduce a federal system that would expand self-rule for ethnic minorities, and she called on these groups to support her party.
“Myanmar must develop in peace and safety with the participation of all minorities,” Suu Kyi said during the campaign. “Our party needs to win this election to take power, so please vote for us. A government by our party will work for the benefit of the people."
President Thein Sein's ruling USDP has also devoted attention to minority groups. He was trying to bring about a ceasefire between the government and armed ethnic factions, and hoped to achieve this in the run-up to the election.
He appeared to succeed when a ceasefire deal was brokered last month. President Thein Sein described it as “a historic gift for the next generation”, but only half of the 16 armed minority groups that were expected to sign the accord actually did so. The others stopped short of signing due to deep-rooted distrust of the government forces.
Shibuya: Back to Sho. Having witnessed the voting first-hand, what do you think is the most pressing challenge for lawmakers?
Beppu: Myanmar has long been seen as a country that lagged behind while the rest of South-East Asia enjoyed rapid economic growth. It’s rich in natural resources and sits in a strategically important location. People often say that military rule has acted like a cap that limited the chances of development. But that’s likely to change. This means that newly-elected members of parliament have to make sure that change does not lead to turmoil and that they bring about a smooth transition. Now is the time that their responsibilities will be put to the test.