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Campaigners urge caution after Burmese elections

13 November 2015


Quiet hope: the party leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday

Quiet hope: the party leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday

CHRISTIAN charities and campaigners have called for caution amid the celebrations in Burma (Myanmar), after the main opposition party declared victory in the national elections. The National League for Democracy (NLD) said on Wednesday that it was confident of an absolute majority, after winning 90 per cent of the contested seats declared so far.

The party leader, activist, and Nobel Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, retained her seat in Kawmhu, Yangon, and is preparing to enter talks with the military to discuss “national reconciliation” after years of conflict. As a quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for the army, the NLD will need more than two-thirds of the contested seats to secure the winning majority.

Christian Aid’s country manager for Myanmar, Rajan Khosla, said that an NLD win, while “historic” and a cause for celebration, would present considerable challenges for the party, and Ms Suu Kyi.

Speaking from Yangon on Tuesday, he said: “In between this optimistic landscape exists some fear on how this transfer of power will happen and what it would mean. There has been indications that this change process will be respected . . . and we hope it will.”

An estimated 80 per cent of the 30 million people who were eligible to vote turned out in the first openly contested national election in 25 years. As the Church Times went to press, official results had been released for fewer than half of all 491 seats not occupied by the military across both houses; 211 of these were won by the NLD. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said in a release on Monday that the “disenfranchisement” of a large percentage of the population of Burma, and “ongoing human-rights violations”, will continue to be a cause for concern. It said that, for the first time since gaining independence, Burma will have no Muslim MP in parliament.

“The Rohingya Muslim people have been completely denied a vote, while displaced people in Burma’s ethnic areas are also excluded, and most Muslim candidates have been disqualified,” CSW said.

There are several ethnic-minority groups in Burma, but the country as a whole is dominated by the Bamar people. The resulting ethnic tensions have led to a string of drawn-out rebellions in recent years. In March, a ceasefire was agreed between the government and 16 rebel groups after a gradual peace process.

The director of Burma Campaign UK, Mark Farmaner, has said that it was “not coincidental” that the majority of the ten million people who were unable to vote in the election on Sunday were religious minorities. “Religious intolerance is on the rise, and so far the NLD has done nothing to counter it,” he said.

Mr Farmaner warned Burma “not to celebrate too prematurely”, as the new government may yet be “hamstrung” by the authorities. “The NLD will need continued international support to win real freedom for the people of Burma,” he said, on Tuesday.

Should the party succeed, Ms Suu Kyi will not become president, as the constitution prevents anyone with foreign children from holding the post. Her two sons, with her late husband Michael Aris, are British. Ms Suu Kyi, however, told the BBC on Tuesday that the new president would have “no authority”, saying: “I will make all the decisions.”

In the last election, in 1990, the NLD won by a significant majority, but was not allowed to govern. Ms Suu Kyi was detained under house arrest during the campaign, having decided not to flee the country. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.

The NLD, again led by Ms Suu Kyi, boycotted the 2010 elections, but since then the country has experienced a slow process of liberalisation.

Power was handed over to the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), a nominally civilian government, led by President Thein Sein, in March 2011.

Since 1962, Burma had been under the rule of an oppressive military junta, and the generals who ran the country were accused of human-rights abuses. USDP had secured just 12 seats by Wednesday.

The Christian charity Tearfund described Sunday’s election as a “milestone” for Burmese politics. Its representative for Burma, Alison Fernandes, said: “The general mood on the ground is one of hope for the future.”

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