Posted by: yannaungoak | April 4, 2012

Myanmar’s 2012 By-elections

The winners and their districts (click to enlarge)

Thanks to @Altsean for letting me use their map, and Ko Linn Yaung for the pictures of the candidates!

Wow, what a day that was! I can only imagine the excitement and jubilation in the streets of Yangon. Even from here in Singapore, the live updates on the internet kept me on the edge of my seat from dawn on Sunday till dawn the next day. Seriously, a year ago, this was a pipe dream, now by every indication, it’s feels like the genuine start of a new era.

We’ve all been pessimists our whole lives, that’s what we’re taught to be when we grew up in Burma. Throughout election day, we gritted our teeth when we heard of all the ways they cheated: people’s names missing from ballot boxes, votes covered with wax so people couldn’t write the check marks properly, misinforming people on how to check the boxes so their vote will be voided, dead people voting, pretty much every trick in the book and then some. But when the polls close and the unofficial counting started, one seat after another went to the NLD, despite all the “irregularities“. Still, we thought this can’t be it, they’ll never let the NLD win every single seat, especially the ones in the capital, Naypyidaw. And so we eagerly waited for the official results. The real surprise was when the Burmese state TV news anchor read out the official results on Monday night. So far, votes from 40 of the 45 seats have officially counted, and every single one of them went to the NLD.

Here’s the video of the announcement (in Burmese).

So these 40 seats are divided into:

According to the constitution, the by-elections are held a year after the general elections because those members of parliament who were appointed cabinet ministers have to give up their seats in parliament. So, these 45 seats were all held by the ruling party USDP big-shots, most of whom were ex-military generals.

So, 38 seats out of 664 seats in parliament is a tiny minority by the standards of mature and vibrant democracies, but there’s more to the story than that.

First, we have to look at what has been happening since the new government formed last year. After the 2010 election, the USDP, which is basically the junta’s brainchild, controlled 58% of the upper house and 57% of the lower house. The military (mainly a new crop of generals who were promoted shortly before the formation of the new government) automatically controls 25% of the seats in both houses. So we are talking about close to 90% of seats controlled by people from (or aligned with) the old junta. Everyone thought it was a joke. But things started changing. The president turned out to be genuinely wanting to reform the country. And then they released Aung San Suu Kyi, and then over the course of a few months, most of the political prisoners. And then after that the world took notice. Hilary Clinton came to visit in December, and then dignitaries from one country after another. Then everyone wanted to invest in Burma. Everyone wanted to go on holiday in Burma. So, what was going on?

When I asked people what they thought of the 2010 elections, most said it was going to be the same thing as before. Some had an inkling of optimism, they would tell me about how they knew this or that person who was interested in politics and public affairs and was running for a seat for the USDP. These people weren’t ex-generals, they were everyday people who just was wanted to be part of something new, betting on a slim chance that they might actually have some autonomy in the decision making process in the new parliament. The fact of the matter was that the old junta didn’t have 600 generals to fill the entire parliament, they had to recruit civilians. And in addition, as president Thein Sein shows, an ex-general and a general (who can only follow orders) are very different things. They were all just waiting until they knew it was safe to express their real opinions. Everybody knew how messed up the country is, they were all just too afraid to say it. So, when the tide turned, everyone was enthusiastically one-upping another in their zeal for reforms. After all, they want to be remembered as someone who did the right thing, not filthy pigs for whom no curse word was strong enough.

Second, the fact that everything is new makes it possible for the democratic process to actually function well. Most of the members of parliament are either the new generals who have never been in a political position before, or civilians who also weren’t in a position of power before. This meant that there were no vested interests for them to protect. Sure, the members of the old guard who are paragons of corruption were also there in parliament, but they were outnumbered by the new members, who had no pre-existing privileges that they could lose in the process of reforms.

Third, so given that the NLD is stepping into power as the largest minority party in parliament, they really have the potential to drive the changes that are inevitably going to take place in the coming months and years. Nobody is wed to dogmatic ideologies. Even the USDP, they’ve never had ideology, they’ve only operated on the basis of fear. Take the fear away, and people start acting and thinking on their own. And amidst all this enthusiasm, these members of parliament’s concern for narrow self interest might just give way to a genuine concern for the greater good.

So, apart from all the politics, the thing that really moved me about Sunday’s election was how intimate it felt. It’s not politics, it’s about hope, about that feeling that something that has been wrong for so long is now going to begin to be made right. And it wasn’t just hope in the form of talking heads on TV waxing eloquently. Ask anybody in Yangon, most people would tell you they know at least a handful of those candidates personally. Myint Oo, who won in Thanatpin, is the father of one of my close friends from high school. Zayar Thaw, who won in Naypyidaw, is a ex-rapper, who’s of our generation, went to school with a few of my friends. From the candidates who ran for other parties, another high school friend, and a guy who taught in the same volunteer program as me in Singapore just a few months ago. And these are just the people I found out about randomly, if I looked carefully I’m sure I’ll find a lot more people I know personally. People were even complaining on facebook that everyone they knew had suddenly become a politician. But that’s exactly what’s great about all this! 50 years of cowering under fear, and now these people are pursuing politics as a vocation. As Weber said, they are moving onward from mere convictions to roles of responsibility. This hope is not false because we’re not going to let it be.

I can go on and on, but let’s leave it here for now. I’ll make sure to post more later.



  1. Thanks for this – so interesting.

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