2015 Myanmar Elections: A Vote for Change

Former project partner Zin Mar (center) will be a member of the incoming Parliament

On November 8th, tens of millions of people in Myanmar enthusiastically exercised their democratic rights by voting in an historic national election. Vastly outperforming expectations, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming electoral victory over the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The result was – similar to 1990 – a clear rejection of military rule, and the NLD will control national legislation and the election of the next President in February 2016. However, while the results of the elections are encouraging, the path ahead is fraught with challenging political and social dynamics.

Election results summary:

  • The NLD now holds majorities in both the House of Nationalities (136 of 224 seats), and the House of Representatives (255 of 440 seats).
  • 110 former political prisoners have been elected to Parliament as members of the NLD.
  • The USDP only won 42 of 498 races.

One big step, many more to go

The results of the election are a positive development, but there is a risk of the results serving as a smoke screen covering up other ongoing problems. As the international community rushes to embrace this as a complete victory, thousands of people are still being intimidated and marginalized throughout the country.

During this tenuous time, Partners Asia is supporting vital efforts in cities, rural communities, and across the borders of Myanmar. Our on-the-ground understanding of the web of conflicts, barriers, and issues at play helps us provide assistance to the most vulnerable groups when and where they need it most.

The military still casts a long shadow

Even though they were defeated in the elections, the military still holds incredible power stemming from the constitution they created in 2008: 25% of the Parliamentary seats are reserved for the military and Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) is prohibited from running for President because of her marriage to a foreigner.

Changes to the constitution can only be made with over 75% approval from Parliament, which means the military holds veto power over any proposals. For now the military is playing nicely in public, but time will tell how cooperative they are when specific reforms are brought to the table.

Despite NLD victory, ethnic minorities marginalized

Millions of people, particularly ethnic minorities and refugees, were denied their right to vote. Due to pressure from anti-Muslim groups, the NLD did not run any Muslim candidates, and when the new Parliament is sworn in, there will not be any Muslim members. This exclusion is a disheartening backdrop that illustrates the complexities facing a diverse country fraught with cultural tension and discrimination.

In an unexpected development, rural communities often voted for the NLD over candidates from their smaller ethnic minority parties. While this unification was crucial for achieving the majorities needed to wrest power from the military junta, the newly elected Parliament is not fully representative of the people of Myanmar.

This is one of the reasons that Partners Asia is committed to building the capacity of ethnic minority communities throughout the country. Our focus on discreet, flexible funding of grassroots programs helps protect the vulnerable, give a voice to the powerless, and support the growth of a more inclusive society.

What’s next for Myanmar?

Sadly, while the election brings joy to many, the fighting in Shan State and Kachin State has continued and even escalated in recent weeks. It’s estimated that another 6,000 people have been forced from their homes since early October, adding to the tens of thousands of people since 2011 that have fled the violence terrorizing these regions.

Back in the capitol, the sitting USDP-majority parliament is still in control for the next three months. Despite their lame-duck status and a mandate from voters opposing them, they are currently using their power to continue passing laws. When the NLD-led government assumes power in March, it will be hard for them to change these laws, and they will have to balance the eagerness of their supporters with the challenge of building a coalition which includes the entrenched military as well as the smaller ethnic armies around the country.

How you can help

Our mission is to ensure that marginalized communities can have their voices heard and be included in building a country that serves its entire populace. Religious, ethnic and gender discrimination are problems that must be addressed as Myanmar moves toward a just society and truly representative government, and Partners Asia is working every day to help make this reality come true.