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Myanmar Election: Suu Kyi's Party Poised For 2nd Term

Supporters gather in front of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy headquarters on Sunday, in Yangon, Myanmar.
Supporters gather in front of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy headquarters on Sunday, in Yangon, Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy appear set for another five years in power, and analysts expect to see few changes in her second term.

Myanmar's general election, held on Sunday, was the Southeast Asian nation's second since the military relinquished absolute power in 2011. It was largely seen as a referendum on Suu Kyi's first term as state counsellor, which began after her party's landslide electoral victory in 2015.

Suu Kyi's party, which claimed victory before official results came in, had clinched 397 seats in Myanmar's 664-seat parliament by Thursday, That's more than it won in 2015. Twenty-five percent of the parliament's seats are appointed by the military, which remains powerful. A military-backed political party has rejected the election results as unfair.

The NLD was heavily favored to win, but the election was criticized for disenfranchisement of minority voters and was dogged by voting safety concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite Myanmar's nearly 66,000 casesand over 1,500 deaths, turnout was reportedly higher than expected and millions cast ballots for candidates vying for nearly 1,200 seats at the national, state and regional levels.

Voters wearing protective face masks line up to cast their ballots at a polling station in Yangon, Myanmar, on Sunday. Turnout was reportedly higher than expected, given concerns over voter safety during the coronavirus pandemic.
Thein Zaw / AP
Voters wearing protective face masks line up to cast their ballots at a polling station in Yangon, Myanmar, on Sunday. Turnout was reportedly higher than expected, given concerns over voter safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some of the issues that will define Suu Kyi's second term.

The economy

Yangon-based historian Thant Myint-U predicts that Suu Kyi — a Nobel Peace laureate who spent years as a political prisoner and remains beloved at home despite international criticism — will continue to focus on priorities such as a stalled peace process with ethnic minority groups and relations with China.

But the most important issue, he says, is Myanmar's economy.

Nearly 25% of Myanmar's more than 53 million people were under the poverty line in 2018, according to the Asian Development Bank. And while the country has seen about 7% economic growth every year since opening up in 2011, projections show the coronavirus pandemic will shrink growth to 1.8% this year.

"It's not simply a matter of liberalizing that economy as it is," Thant Myint-U says. "I think it needs basic structural transformation." The economy needs to shift from the "incredibly corrupt and cronyist capitalist system" that has evolved over the last 25 years, he says, to one that is "green and sustainable" and "industrialized and urban."

While resource- and capital-rich Myanmar has experienced swift economic growth since opening up in 2011, years of poor economic management and armed conflicts with the country's ethnic minorities have taken a toll.

Thant Myint-U says the ongoing and sometimes violent tensions also make it unlikely that Suu Kyi will pursue any changes to the country's latest constitution, enacted in 2008, which gives autonomy to the military.

The constitution "was the instrument through which they felt comfortable in beginning to release power and move from a pure military dictatorship to what we have now, which is a hybrid political system," Thant Myint-U says.

Moving to a full democracy is going to take longer, he says, especially because of the armed conflicts.

The Rohingya crisis

Another major issue that will continue to demand Suu Kyi's attention is the Rohingya crisis. The Muslim minority group, which is denied citizenship in Myanmar, drew worldwide attention in 2017, after some 750,000 fled across the border to Bangladesh following a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military.

Suu Kyi has stood by the military's actions, even defending the country against genocide charges during a trial at the International Court of Justice last year in The Hague. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya continue to languish in refugee camps in Bangladesh, while most of the 600,000 or so Rohingya who remain in Myanmar are confined to camps, their movements heavily restricted. They were not allowed to vote in Sunday's election.

Abdul Rasheed, a Rohingya politician and human rights activist whose application to run for election was rejected, tells NPR that any Rohingya policy change "is completely dependent" on Suu Kyi "and what she wants."

But, he warns, without resolving the crisis — by recognizing Rohingya as citizens, allowing them freedom of movement and repatriating those who fled abroad, among other things — Myanmar cannot be a true democracy.

Myanmar and the U.S.

The U.S. is among the countries that have pressured Suu Kyi to hold the Myanmar military accountable for its actions against the Rohingya in 2017.

Since 2012, Washington has provided $1.5 billion in aid "to support Burma's democratic transition and economic transformation." The U.S. has been openly critical of the country's treatment of the Rohingya — though it has stopped short of calling it genocide.

In a statement on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday's elections "mark an important step in the country's democratic transition," but expressed concern over disenfranchisement and the number of legislative seats reserved for the military.

"We look forward to continuing to work with Burma's new government to promote inclusive economic prosperity, achieve lasting peace throughout the country, and foster respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all," the statement said.

While Thant Myint-U would like to see the new administration of President-elect Joe Biden place development and investment "front and center" in the U.S. relationship with Myanmar, other analysts believe the relationship will likely remain business as usual.

"I would imagine that, at best, we get a pragmatic engagement that balances a human rights approach with more development assistance," says Hunter Marston, a doctoral candidate at the Australian National University who studies U.S. foreign policy toward Southeast Asia.

Yangon has grown closer to Beijing in recent years, he notes. And Suu Kyi has brushed off criticism from the West of her handling of the Rohingya crisis.

"She's essentially burned those bridges," Marston says. "And I don't think there's much hope for significant repair of those relationships. It'll be a slow process that happens."

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