Political pundits urged the masses not to rush to conclusions about Sunday’s election in Myanmar. But at Aung San Suu Kyi’s headquarters on Monday, people were ready to get the party started.
Leaders of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy said Monday they were winning precincts in convincing fashion in early counts. Most of those were in central Myanmar and especially in Yangon, the former Burmese capital known widely as Rangoon.
As those results were announced, Suu Kyi’s supporters started dancing on the sidewalks and into the street, creating a scene more reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro than Yangon, where quiet, humble Buddhist monks walk the streets in their maroon robes. The celebration continued until a heavy rainstorm drove partiers to cover.
“It is time to celebrate, but with a cautious celebration,” said Kwah Thu Aung, leader of a civil society group called Paung Ku who was amid the throng at NLD headquarters on Monday afternoon. “Everyone is aware there are many challenges ahead (for Suu Kyi) with the handover of power.”
Sunday’s election was the first contested general election in 25 years in Myanmar, which the military ruled for decades and still remains very much a force. Suu Kyi’s supporters see this election as their chance to abandon that history, but it remains to be seen if they can succeed.
Military leaders have long feared Suu Kyi taking the reins of power and diminishing their influence, including control of key businesses in Myanmar. As a result, they designed a 2008 constitution that would keep her from winning the presidency. The constitution bans parties from selecting a presidential candidate who has foreign kin, such as Suu Kyi’s two sons, who hold British passports.
An estimated 80 percent of Myanmar’s 30 million registered voters turned out at the polls. Many said they were voting only because of ‘Mother Suu.’
Despite that provision, Suu Kyi vowed during her campaign that, if the NLD triumphed, she would be the de facto leader of the country, serving “above the president,” as she stated in a press conference last week. Analysts say that pledge was at least partly designed to persuade voters that their vote would put her in power, as opposed to a lesser-known presidential candidate the National League for Democracy would name later.
The strategy may have worked. An estimated 80 percent of Myanmar’s 30 million registered voters turned out at the polls, and many made clear they were only voting because of “Mother Suu” – Aung San Suu Kyi.
On Monday evening, Suu Kyi’s party announced it had won 44 of Yangon’s 45 seats in the lower house of Parliament. It also claimed that it had won all 12 seats of Yangon’s seats in the upper house.
While Suu Kyi’s party was expected to do better in Yangon that in outlying areas of Myanmar, there were signs it was doing unexpectedly well in remote ethnic areas. Kin Zaw Win, a political analyst and former political prisoner, said he was stunned to see the support the NLD was getting in Shan state, a part of north Myanmar thought to be hostile to Suu Kyi’s party.
Myanmar received some kudos Monday from international observers, who praised the country for holding a contested election so peacefully.
Those who lose should bravely concede, while those who win should humbly celebrate the victory. That is a true democracy.
Aung San Suu Kyi
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also sent his congratulations but said there remained “important structural and systemic impediments to the realization of full democratic and civilian government” in Myanmar.
One of these, said Kerry, was the disenfranchisement of certain groups that had voted in past elections. These, he said, included Rohingya Muslims, which the Myanmar government has treated as “Bengali” illegal immigrants. In a statement, Kerry said there were other candidates disqualified “based on arbitrary application of citizenship and residency requirements.”
Early on Monday, Aung San Suu Kyi made a surprise appearance at the NLD headquarters and delivered a brief speech, in Burmese, urging supporters to be patient.
“Victory or failure, that is not important. What is important is how we win or lose,” she told the crowd. “Those who lose should bravely concede, while those who win should humbly celebrate the victory. That is a true democracy.”
If anything, the speech only encouraged more supporters to flock to the party’s headquarters and clog traffic along the adjacent street. One of those was Aye Kay, a Myanmar citizen who flew from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to vote in the election.
“I hope this will be a big change,” said Aye Kay, 37, who works for Carnival Cruise Line in Florida. She hopes the NLD will focus on schools and economic development in Myanmar.
“We need education for all. We need people who are interested in our country and want to invest.”
Numerous politicians for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party lost their seats in Sunday’s elections. One was Shwe Mann, the party’s former chair, who conceded defeat.
Earlier, Reuters quoted party chief Htay Oo as saying, “We lost.” It was unclear if the party chief was referring to the entire election or just the party’s showing in the Irrawaddy Delta region, which Htay Oo represents.
McClatchy special correspondent Mai Hla Aye contributed to this report.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth