But it’s not a loss for India
Recent events in Egypt should warn us of premature euphoria about the victory of people power in countries under authoritarian regimes. But the images of iconic pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest until November 2010 running for elections in a country that till an a year ago was a quiet, fearful military dictatorship are bound to leave most observers intoxicated. In any case, Myanmar is not Egypt, although the military junta still holds power in that country.
First the facts. Myanmar’s Lower House of parliament has 440 seats (of which 330 are elected) while the Upper House has 224 seats (of which 168 are elected). Before the bye-elections, the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) dominated with 348 seats while serving soldiers had 166 seats. By-elections have been held for 45 seats to fill vacancies of those elected in 2010 polls who became ministers and deputy ministers in the government. These by-elections have been contested by 176 candidates from 17 parties and eight independents. The most famous candidate running in these by-elections is Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) has put up candidates in 44 seats.
Although the official results are not yet out, NLD is expected to win 40 of those seats. Suu Kyi herself has reportedly got 99% of the vote and won at 128 out of 129 polling booths in Kawmhu, the seat where she contested from. More surprisingly, NLD is claiming to have won 3 out of 4 seats in the new capital city of Naypyidaw, which is populated largely by government employees believed to be sympathetic to USDP.
These by-elections have been largely free and fair, with few reports of rigging or electoral irregularities. The one rather interesting complaint has been about the use of wax in the NLD box of the ballot paper.
…reports from all around the country that wax had been fixed on the NLD box on the ballot paper, making it hard for voters to put a clear tick in the box. The idea being, presumably, that a lot of scratching to write a tick would disfigure, and thus invalidate, the ballot paper. Certainly, a couple of furious people whom I spoke to at polling stations complained of this, and said that when they asked for a new ballot paper they were told there were none spare.[Banyan]
Notwithstanding this allegation, even if the NLD wins most of the seats, Suu Kyi is not going to be in power: the army and the USDP will still hold about 80% of seats in parliament. Let us also not forget that when Suu Kyi’s NLD had won the multi-party elections in 1990 (winning 392 of the 492 seats), those results were never accepted by the army. Those elections were not meant to form a parliamentary government, but only to form a parliament sized constitutional committee to draft a new constitution for Myanmar. How different could it be now?
Understanding the situation fully, Suu Kyi has promised to use her voice to push for further reforms. But she will need to continue her engagement with the President, Thein Sein. Both have taken big risks over the last year to get to this stage and the response from the international community should encourage them to go further.
What is in this for India? Unlike the Chinese or the Americans — and despite tremendous pressure from the US, India has maintained a working relationship with both the sides: Suu Kyi and the army. This will keep India in good stead in that country in the foreseeable future. India has three goals in Myanmar. One, to deny insurgents from India’s Northeastern states a sanctuary in Myanmar, and deny the Maoists access to arms smuggled via Kachin rebels in Myanmar. Two, to prevent China from gaining complete control in Myanmar, thereby countering China’s growing regional influence. Three, to use Myanmar as a gateway for furthering its relationship with other South-East Asian countries, as part of its Look East policy.
Of course, India can also help nurture Myanmar on to a path of full democracy. Peace and stability in Myanmar will allow India to focus on the development of Northeastern states. For once, India seems to be playing its cards right with a neighbouring country. It has been announced that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will soon visit Myanmar — the first visit to that country by an Indian PM in 25 years. This is one move which will allow the two countries to further strengthen their relationship. From here, it will take something out of the ordinary for India to mess it up with Myanmar. That’s some solace. Because anything out of the ordinary is beyond the current government in Delhi.