Myanmar’s ethnic minorities put their faith in Aung San Suu Kyi

Originally published on 19th November at

Aung San Suu Kyi’s triumph in Myanmar’s historic elections had been predicted by many observers, but the scale of her party’s victory went far beyond what most people expected. Prior to the elections it had even been argued that support for the National League for Democracy (NLD) was dwindling and the party would face stiff competition from nationalist parties in ethnic states. But the Election Commission’s announcement on November 13, which declared that the NLD had won more than the 329 national parliament seats required for a majority, confirms that support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD is at an all-time high.

The NLD’s impressive results in Karenni State, Kachin State, Mon State and Shan State also indicate that many voters in ethnic minority regions ignored the appeal of nationalist parties. While the lack of political unity between ethnic groups contributed some way to the NLD’s success, it also appears many voters felt the NLD and its high profile leader were best placed to successfully wrestle power from the country’s military leaders. As Chiara Formichi, Assist. Prof. in Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell University, explains, many voters in Mon State and Shan State, opted for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party because they believed, “only an NLD victory would bring ‘real change’”.

One ethnic state where Aung San Suu Kyi’s party performed poorly was Rakhine, home to the Arakan National Party (ANP) which won a greater number of seats than the NLD. According to Chiara Formichi, “conservative propaganda, spreading rumours of the NLD as ‘pro-Rohingya’ and ‘pro-Muslim’, was successful in stirring many Rakhine voters away from the League”. The ANP’s victory was also helped by the removal of around 500,000 Rohingya-Muslims from voter registration lists.

The systematic persecution of the Rohingya-Muslims in Rakhine is another ethnic minority issue that Aung San Suu Kyi will be expected to tackle urgently. Recently, international human rights organizations have reported that the decades-long persecution of the Rohginya has now entered thefinal stages of genocide and this community is on the verge of “mass annihilation”. The international community has been pressing Myanmar to cease its abusive treatment of the Rohingya and hopes are high that the country’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient will live up to her iconic status.

While most Rohingya were unable to vote in these elections, Muslims from other ethnic groups were able to exercise their democratic rights and, in the absence of any viable alternatives, many voted for the NLD. Francis Wade suggests that, “Muslim voters may well have backed the NLD because they knew that a Muslim candidate in parliament would struggle to wield much influence”. Muslims who voted for the NLD will be expecting the party to protect them from the rise of ultra-nationalist organizations and ensure their religious freedoms.

In the days following the NLD’s election victory, a number of Armed Ethnic Organizations issued statements confirming their acceptance of the party’s win. James Lum Dau, from the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), told The Irrawaddy, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a leader that we respect”, while Maj. Sai Hla of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), stated that he expected Aung San Suu Kyi “to make the peace process better”. Speaking for the Karen National Union (KNU) Zipporah Sein told The Irrawaddy that they expected the NLD to implement changes “in three main areas: national peace and reconciliation, constitutional change, and the rule of law”.

That the NLD’s victory is welcomed by ethnic minority organizations bodes well for the peace process and suggests there will be improved relations between the new government and these ethnic groups. However these statements also highlight the high expectations that are now being placed on Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership. Having voted for the NLD, ethnic minority groups will expect to see progress on their shared objectives; the peace process and constitutional changes that will lead tofederal governance.  Achieving these goals will require significant cooperation from Myanmar’s military leadership who, despite suffering heavy losses in the elections, still control the country’s most powerful institution.

The Burmese Army has been engaged in decades-long armed conflict with numerous rebel groups and there have been UN reports that claim the army has committed war crimes against these communities. To date the military has shown few signs of wanting peace or reconciliation. On 9thNovember, just one day after the elections, clashes between rebels and the military erupted again in Shan State. Influencing the military to change its approach to towards ethnic minority groups, engage in peace talks and commit to the peace process, will be a huge challenge for the incoming government.

it will be the NLD’s responsibility to deliver on the promise of federalism and stronger democratic rule — Chiara Formichi

Amending the constitution is another challenge that ethnic minority groups will expect the National League for Democracy to tackle. The current constitution was written in 2008 and it supports the military’s grip on power, blocks Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the president and allows the army to take over the civilian administration if there is a threat to national unity. The NLD have made clear that amending the constitution is one of their priorities and ethnic minority groups will be anticipating changes which lay the foundation for a system of federal governance. However, with the military guaranteed 25% of all parliamentary seats, which effectively gives them the power to veto any amendments, changes to the constitution will only take place if the NLD are able to exploit divisions within the military block.

The NLD’s landslide victory was supported by voters from ethnic minority groups in the belief that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party would be best able to represent their interests in the next parliament and, as Chiara Formichi explains, expectations are high, “it will be the NLD’s responsibility to deliver on the promise of federalism and stronger democratic rule, at the centre as much as at the periphery”. With the elections won and the country entering a new era, it looks like the hard work is only just beginning.

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