A hopeful but divided country emerges from Myanmar’s 2015 polls.
A little over a week has now passed since Myanmar’s historic 8 November polls. After over 20 rounds of results, on Friday the opposition National League for Democracy passed the required threshold to pass legislation in the next parliament and nominate two of three Vice-Presidential candidates, one of whom will take the top job come March 2016.
Well publicised constraints on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi becoming President, and on constitutional amendment without military support, continue to loom large. Yet the agreement from President Thein Sein and Commander of the Myanmar Armed Forces Min Aung Hlaing to meet with Daw Suu this week have raised prospects of an orderly transfer of government.
Beyond the picture that is forming of elite politics after the elections, at the local level many Myanmar analysts and watchers have been taken aback at the consistency of the NLD ‘redwash’. With almost all results released, the NLD has won over 80 per cent of seats and around 70 per cent in ethnic states. How do we make sense of these results? What’s behind voter behaviour, and what are the implications for these election for Myanmar’s transition?
In order to help get at some of these questions, in the days following last Sunday’s poll I conducted dozens of short interviews with contacts I’ve been following for months in urban and rural areas around an ethnically and religiously mixed township in central-east Myanmar.
These people hold a variety of views across the political spectrum, and their voting patterns and perceptions of the outcomes provide a small snapshot into the sweeping NLD victory we have seen trickle out across much of the country over the past week.
A democratic dawn
For most voters, this was a referendum on the authoritarian period.
They acknowledged and appreciated the recent liberalisation and related political and economic reforms. After months of vacillation, however, most decided their votes on the basis of who they trust to change a system which is still broken. As the father of a rural family told me, he voted for the NLD in the end as he believed opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will do a better job at reforming the petty bribery and circuitous referrals endemic in Myanmar bureaucracy. This frustration with a government which still frequently operates under the logic of the authoritarian period was common amongst those who ended up voting NLD.
The attempt by the USDP to supersede these frustrations through a combination of local projects, patronage of Buddhism and ‘local hero’ candidates largely failed. Even in areas of high government employment, demand for change and anger over government mismanagement and manipulation largely trumped materially-derived loyalty.
Meanwhile, the campaign by Buddhist nationalists to force voters to choose between the NLD and Buddhism was largely rejected. Many devout Buddhists simply refused to believe that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would do anything which would harm Buddhism. This bears out findings of the Asia Barometer earlier this year which found that devout Buddhists were just as likely to support the NLD as people who identified as less religious.
Despite support for the opposition from religious voters, many NLD voters and operatives expressed strong Islamophobic fears. A number of rural voters told me that while they lent their support to Daw Suu, they worry that the next government will be too influenced by ‘Kalar’ – people of South Asian extraction and in this context Muslim.
As one middle-aged village woman commented, “We want to be governed only by Myanmar people, not other nationalities… If the next government is run by Kalar then I will fight!” While widely circulated narratives and concerns about the rapid growth of violent Islam in Myanmar have not at this stage formulated a rigid partisan identity, their content has had an evident effect on reframing interreligious relations.
An end to hardline Buddhism?
On a related note, many Ma Ba Tha sympathisers I spoke with did not vote. For months I watched as numerous people strongly supportive of the religious-political project of Ma Ba Tha have wrestled with how to vote. Many were torn between supporting the NLD – a party they say is run by ‘Kalar’ and which they think ‘quarrels with monks’ – and the USDP, which they see as largely responsible for the poverty and lack of opportunities that have plagued their lives for years.
Now it is clear many Buddhist nationalists simply dodged the choice entirely. The potential third force and Ma Ba Tha-aligned party, the National Development Party, which campaigned strongly on protecting ‘national religion’, failed to attract more than a handful of votes (less than 2 per cent in most polling stations in Buddhist areas of the township). This echoes NLD strength in Myanmar’s Delta region, where substantial resources poured into Ma Ba Tha political and lobbying campaigns around cattle, mosques and generalised fear of ascendant Islam largely failed to swing electoral outcomes.
These results strike a blow to the electoral influence of Ma Ba Tha and related networks. It does not necessarily minimise the political power of monks or religious nationalism though. A number of Ma Ba Tha supporters I talked to are cautiously optimistic about development and economic growth under the NLD, though many remain deeply concerned that Daw Suu’s victory will see the elevation of Muslims to the top tiers of governance. Many said they were anxious that the NLD may rescind the inter-faith laws, progress citizenship verification processes for Rohingya, or that mosques shuttered during the military period will be granted permission to reopen.
While fears about Muslim domination of a parliament without a single Muslim member may seen unfounded, there is clear potential for this group of citizens to once again become politically active – as was seen in the successful campaigning for the recently passed inter-faith laws – if such ‘redlines’ are crossed. With a largely NLD government less reliant on courting the fringe, it is unclear whether they will find the same degree of favour among political elites they enjoyed under President Thein Sein.
What place for Myanmar’s ethnic groups?
One major story from the last few days of results is the strong performance of NLD candidates in ethnic areas. Indeed, the NLD looks to have won close to 70 per cent of seats so far announced in ethnic minority areas, with the USDP second and ethnic parties a distant third. It appears the tightly restricted 2010 elections, in which ethnic parties performed well, simply had a very different stake to Sunday’s poll for these voters.
Indeed, Karen voters in both urban and rural areas say they saw these elections as a chance to grasp at national transformation that they hope will bring peace. There looks to have been little vote splitting with ethnic parties, with numerous Karen voters in both urban and rural areas saying that they trust Daw Suu to “bring change across all Burma” and thus voted for the NLD on all ballots. This sense of national belonging and belief in Daw Suu’s almost-mystical cult of personality helps explain why the NLD looks set to pick up the Karen affairs minister in Bago Region.
Despite this enthusiasm for the NLD among voters, it’s important to note that in many ethnic and especially active conflict areas many people did not engage with the electoral process at all. In some Karen villages in Bago Division bordering northern Karen State, turnout was below 40 per cent. Numerous people who did vote in a village of displaced Karen in Bago division told me that they have no interest in the elections. “We must eat for ourselves and work for ourselves… Nothing will change from these elections.” This disengagement was seen elsewhere in the country as well, including Kachin and Kayah states.
Regardless of turnout, the results strike a blow to the claim of ethnic parties – especially for those with a focus on local development – to represent the interests of ethnic minority people whose hope for national transformation is as strong as their Bamar counterparts.
If the peace process continues in the form envisaged by the Thein Sein government – which is less than clear – these results are likely to impact the role of the NLD in the political dialogue phase. More broadly, they water down the notion that the NLD is simply a Bamar party, as most ethnic minorities clearly do not see it at such.
This is likely to require some serious reform within the NLD to radically alter its internal process for managing ethnic constituencies, and ensuring ethnic recognition at the top tiers of party advice and governance. At present 12 of 15 members of the Central Executive Committee are Bamar, a clearly unsustainable balance given the election results.
Dealing with the military
Finally, the chasm between the NLD and the army is substantial.
All the way down to the local level, polling station data suggests that military installations voted overwhelmingly for the USDP. These outcomes support the larger sense that the military has little trust in the NLD’s ability to protect the nation, highlighting that these are more than just slogans but genuine fears about their own status and that of their institution.
Given the major role the military has institutionalised for itself in the affairs of parliaments and bureaucracy across the country, the recent commitment from Commander of the Armed Forces Min Aung Hlaing to meet next week with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is significant; many are already saying that “the future of the country is in their hands.”
Despite the relative consistency and clarity of the message sent in these elections about national transformation, the process of defining ‘the people’ and the boundaries of ‘the political’ during the campaign and period preceding it has left the country divided. The need for a moment of national reconciliation could not be clearer, bringing together religious, ethnic and military actors.
Finding mechanisms to bridge these divides not just at the elite level but at the grass roots is likely to prove a trickier but perhaps more essential task for Myanmar’s democratic transition.
Gerard McCarthy is a doctoral candidate in the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs and Endeavour Postgraduate Scholar in the Department of International Relations at University of Yangon.
This article forms part of New Mandala’s ‘Myanmar and the vote‘ series.