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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 3, 2012

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar
By Brian McCartan

The official tally will not be announced for days, but initial indications are that the Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party notched a sweeping win of Sunday's highly anticipated by-elections in Myanmar. Despite obstacles placed in the path of the NLD's campaign and charges of voting irregularities the party is reportedly on pace to win most, if not all, of the seats it contested.

The party announced soon after the close of polls Sunday evening that its charismatic leader Suu Kyi had won in her constituency of Kawhmu, a rural area south of the commercial capital Yangon. Should the results be officially confirmed, the former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate will make the transition from dissident to member of a parliament dominated by a party


backed by the military establishment she has long fought against.
The Union Election Commission announced days before the vote that ballot counting would take about a week. This delay did not stop Suu Kyi's supporters from gathering in their thousands to celebrate Sunday night at the party's headquarters in Yangon. The NLD's informal election monitoring network claimed on Sunday night it may have won a landslide victory of all 44 seats it contested.

A total of 45 seats were contested for the national and regional parliaments. The vote accounted for 7% of the 664 seats in Myanmar's new upper and lower house of the national parliament. The party's monitoring of the vote is expected to place pressure on the government to ensure the official tally is similar to its predicted result or risk outrage from the NLD's grass roots supporters.

The vote included four seats in the new capital Naypyidaw. A victory there would indicate important military and civil service support for the NLD and an embarrassment for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP contains many former members of the military dictatorship that ruled the country until March 2011 and was the overwhelming winner of the sham 2010 elections.

Even former military intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt, who was purged and placed under house arrest in 2004, hinted to reporters that he had voted for the NLD.

The elections and the campaign leading up to them have indicated strong grassroots popular support for Suu Kyi and the NLD despite the small number of seats up for grabs at the elections. For a country that was under the heel of a harsh military dictatorship for almost 50 years and where many of those who voted on Sunday have never known democracy, the outpouring of support for the elections and the NLD is significant.

The elections were a litmus test of sorts for both the government and the opposition. If it was not clear before, the USDP-led government is now aware of the strong level of support for Suu Kyi and the NLD, which reached almost hysterical proportions in some constituencies. This was in sharp contrast to the lack of fanfare at USDP rallies. New general elections are due in 2015 and some viewed the by-elections as a barometer of voting behavior for the next polls.

Foreign governments, including the United States and some European countries, were eager to view the polls as indication of how far democratic change has taken hold in Myanmar since President Thein Sein began to enact various reforms in the middle of last year. The US and the European Union (EU) have indicated that the fairness of the by-elections will be a factor in determining whether to lift their respective economic sanctions.

Despite government vows of holding a free and fair election, there was concerns that the same irregularities that made the 2010 elections widely viewed as rigged could be repeated. The polls were observed for the first time by international monitors, including a five-member team from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and two representatives each from the United States and the EU, as well as diplomats and members of both domestic and international media. While not allowed into the polling stations, outside observers were given the freedom to travel about the country and interview voters.

Election observers have been generally positive in their appraisal of the voting process. While indicating some irregularities, they have noted that the infractions were minor compared to the intimidation and vote-rigging that undermined the credibility of the 2010 elections. Suu Kyi and her NLD have complained about irregularities in voting lists, defacement of their posters and campaigning by government officials on behalf of USDP candidates.

The US gave its cautious support for the elections on Sunday. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the vote while in Istanbul, Turkey, for a meeting on Syria. "It is too early to know what the progress of recent months means and whether it will be sustained," Clinton said. "There are no guarantees about what lies ahead for the people of Burma [Myanmar], but after a day responding to a brutal dictator in Syria, who would rather destroy his own country than let it move toward freedom, it is heartening to be reminded that even the most repressive regime can reform and even the most closed society can open."

ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan gave his support to the polls during a conference on Sunday in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, noting that they were "going rather well up to this point." "I have been in touch with the [monitoring] teams very, very closely and they report full enthusiasm, full alert, full awareness of all parties involved in the by-elections."

This is the first time that Myanmar's voters have been able to show their outright support for Suu Kyi and the NLD through a democratic vote since the 1990 elections. The NLD won those elections by a landslide but were barred from forming a government by the country's military rulers who banned the results. The NLD boycotted the 2010 elections in protest against what it said were unfair election laws.

Since then relations between the NLD and the government have improved significantly. Suu Kyi has met with senior government officials, including President Thein Sein, and been invited to give her opinion on the economy and other issues. The release of political prisoners, including many prominent activists, the relaxation of media restrictions and other reforms have persuaded the NLD to rejoin mainstream politics and given new legitimacy to Thein Sein's quasi-civilian administration.

Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist. He may be reached at bpmccartan1@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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