Amidst the terrible news of recent weeks there has been one bright spot- Myanmar held its first contested national election since 1990. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist Aung San Suu Kyi, won by an overwhelming landslide and has taken over 80 percent of the contested seats in the Parliament. This result handily surpasses the two-thirds seats required to form a government and select the next president.

Amidst the terrible news of recent weeks there has been one bright spot- Myanmar held its first contested national election since 1990. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist Aung San Suu Kyi, won by an overwhelming landslide and has taken over 80 percent of the contested seats in the Parliament. This result handily surpasses the two-thirds seats required to form a government and select the next president.

The election was also striking because it had over 80 percent turnout –to put this in perspective the United States had 57.5 percent turnout in the last presidential election in 2012.  Excitement for the democratic process was also evident in the lead up to the election and 93 parties competed. 

An estimated 10,500 observers monitored the election and, though some irregularities were noted, it was largely peaceful and credible.  After the majority of the votes were counted the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) conceded and President Thein Sein congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi and committed to handing over power “as scheduled”. All of the ministers in the President’s Office lost their seats, with the exception of one Minister who ran as an independent. This result was even poorer than the USDP expected and many in the ruling party openly expressed surprise. 

The peaceful concession was dramatically different from the 2010 general election, which occurred when Ms. Suu Kyi was still under house arrest, and when the USDP was accused of corrupting the voting process.  In addition to their remarks, President Thein Sein and other USDP and military leaders have also agreed to meet with Ms. Suu Kyi to enable the transition of power. 

Nevertheless, the junta built structural elements into the 2008 Constitution to ensure that they kept certain powers.  For example, the army will still control three key ministries, including the Ministry of Defense, and is guaranteed 25 per cent of seats in Parliament.  The junta members who became part of the USDP committed to holding a democratic general election in 2011 as part of the opening with the West, which led to the lifting of some economic sanctions, the IMF and World Bank re-engaging with the nation and to new labor laws and engagement with the ILO.  

Following her release from house arrest in 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi ran and won a seat in the 2012 by-election.  However, despite her role as the leader of the opposition, she still cannot become the country’s president due to a clause in the Constitution which states that the president cannot have a foreign spouse or children.  Is widely believed that this rule was created to target her specifically because her sons hold British citizenship.  Ms. Suu Kyi has responded to this rule by saying that it does not matter because, as leader of the NLD, she will be the power behind the new president regardless, but this demonstrates the detail of controls which the junta was able to structure into the Constitution well in advance of holding the actual elections. 

In addition to the anti-democratic clauses built into the Constitution, the country suffers from widespread discrimination against ethnic minorities who comprise almost one-third of the population.  In the Kachin and Shan states the military is currently fighting against ethnic separatist groups; in seven areas where there is ongoing ethnic conflicts the elections were not held.  This effectively disenfranchised other large segments of the population.  These ongoing conflicts, and the massive internal displacement in Myanmar affecting an estimated 660,000 persons, will prove challenging to the new NLD-led government. Tensions are running high, and talks for peace accords with the majority of the armed groups are in the works for late- November early- December. 

In addition to the conflicts with other ethnic groups, the Rohingya Muslims, who are not officially recognized as a minority group by the government, were prevented from voting in the recent election.  Human Rights Watch believes that this disenfranchised 700,000 people. In addition, Rohingya politicians could not run and no major party fielded a Muslim candidate, including the NLD. Some human rights organizations have said that the actions which the government and other groups in Rakhine state have taken against the Rohingya amount to ethnic cleansing.  Regional experts say that the NLD feared a backlash from Buddhist hard-liners, but failing to include the Rohingya in the electoral process does not bode well for future collaboration.    

Myanmar still faces numerous challenges – from conflicts with ethnic separatists to widespread poverty and anti-democratic structures put in place by the military junta before the 2011 opening. However, in today’s world the glimmer of hope which the election provided should not be discounted.  Though the NLD did not reach out to Muslim and other groups prior to or during the election they could still do so after they form a government and have a stronger position relative to the USDP. Additionally, there could be advances during the peace accords. The international community needs to continue watching and supporting democratic changes in Myanmar and cannot allow the country to lapse back into obscurity simply because it held a largely free election – to do so could lead to a reversal of the gains which the country has made.