The huge victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) winning 80% of the vote in parliamentary elections shows the tenacity and courage of the Burmese people in the cities, towns, villages and countryside. It comes after 50 years of repressive army rule.
In 1988, a heroic month-long uprising lacked the necessary leadership to overthrow the army and was viciously put down. It was this movement which threw up the beginnings of the NLD and gave prominence to Aung San Suu Kyi, its leader. She suffered prison and house arrest for most of the years since then, with other leaders arrested, tortured and killed.
Today, there remains some scepticism as to whether the NLD will finally be allowed to take over government. The first session of parliament after the election has been as previously constituted - without any of the newly elected MPs. The old parliament will only finish its term at the end of January next year. The generals still control the main levers of power in Burma’s society.
When, once before, in elections in 1990, the NLD had a landslide victory, the generals refused to hand over. They claimed the election was only to create a parliament which would draft a new constitution which then gave the Army a built-in 25% of the seats in the parliament. It also blatantly barred the head of state from having foreign relatives - Suu Kyi has two sons of English nationality.
The Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) candidates were chosen by, and included, mainly army people – either retired or serving officers in suits. The Electoral Commissioner is an army officer and before the election openly expressed his wish for a USDP victory. Although the election was on the 8th November, the results just dribbled out over the period of a week. The NLD spokesman, Win Htien, said, “It shouldn’t be like that. They are trying to be crooked”.
In fact all soldiers were told to vote for their Party, the USDP, and in areas where they are stationed their votes came into the polling stations in advance and in blocks, swinging the majority in some places. In many parts of the country, no polls took place. There are still at least three ethnic groups fighting guerrilla wars. The Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan region have been denied citizenship and votes. Observers of other Muslim parties were barred from polling stations.
The Rohingya are viciously persecuted by Buddhist extremists and the army. Similar numbers of Rohingya refugees to those taking to boats in the Mediterranean have drowned in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, this is one of the issues on which Aung San Suu Kyi has demonstrated the limitations on her own democratic principles. There have been no reports of her condemning the persecution of the Muslims and there was not one Muslim candidate on her party lists, in spite of them making up at least 4% of the population of Burma.
Fear of losing control
Five years ago, in 2010, the generals announced they would withdraw from the parliament around 40 of their MPs and hold a ‘day of by-elections’. This was mainly window-dressing aimed at letting big multinational companies head off criticism for developing and exploiting trade in the country’s vast natural resources. There had been growing boycott campaigns in USA Universities against Coca Cola and Pepsi, for instance, because they were proposing to build factories in Burma.
This was immediately followed by high-powered visits – from William Hague, accompanied by business leaders, and also from Barack Obama. The latter had particular concerns; the Chinese regime was looking to develop a port on Burma’s Indian Ocean coast. The busiest shipping lanes in the world run between South East Asia and Australia. The USA immediately began to develop a new military base in Darwin, northern Australia.
The Burmese generals have their own interests, which coincide with those of major capitalist powers. They have their fingers, if not their whole hands, in much of the trade and commerce of the country. The military have said they will not stand in the way of Suu Kyi taking over, although she cannot become president. For her part, she has declared that she will be ‘above’ the President. The main slogan of the NLD was ‘Time for Change’ and this, along with the mood of the people has worried them. During the campaign President Thein Sein exclaimed: “We have changed from a military regime to a democratic government, elected by the people. What more change do you want? If you want more, go for communism. Nobody wants communism do they?”.
There is a certain historic justification in his fears. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, became general secretary of the Burmese Communist Party in 1939 and led the guerrilla struggles against British, then Japanese, imperialism for independence. This came to fruition when he negotiated and signed the agreement with British prime minister Clement Attlee on 27th January 1945. Aung San was assassinated with six of his ministers at a cabinet meeting on 19th July of the same year.
In the first general election after independence all eleven parties claimed to be socialist. Even in 1962 when a coup d’etat was organised to oust the pro-capitalist U Nu, it had a certain popularity. It was carried through by Ne Win whose party was then the only one legally permitted. Reflecting the mood in the country at that time and the influence of the then still developing Stalinist planned economies of the USSR, China and elsewhere, it was called the Burma Socialist Programme Party. Ne Win had been one of the ‘30 Comrades’ who had led the independence struggle.
General Thein Sein, now in his civilian clothes, is claiming credit for the transition to civilian elections and government, but most Burmese will only believe it when they see it established. There is no automatic hand-over of power and Suu Kyi and the NLD now have to negotiate with the army tops and those in government, all be it from a position of greater strength nationally.
International capitalism will have its diplomats exerting huge pressure to keep Burma safe for them and their system and Aung San Suu Kyi gives no reason to believe she will not oblige. In the new situation, there is the potential for a further movement from below, which could, indeed, have consequences for the country’s international partners. It is urgent that the Burmese workers and poor people build their own organisations and democratic structures to counter pro-business policies and fight for a real socialist programme and action.