Aung San Suu Kyi Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi

It is now clear that tarnished Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won last Sunday’s Myanmar general election in another landslide, allowing it to govern in its own right for another five years.

But while widely billed as the second free election in the impoverished nation it was far from that. About 1.5 million people from ethnic minorities — from a population of more than 37 million eligible voters — were disenfranchised.

Most of these were Muslim Rohingya, more than 750,000 of whom have been driven out of the country into refugee camps in Bangladesh. But about 500,000 remain.

This was noted not just by international observers but many members of the local media who made the point that the election was not as much of a “success” for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities as it was for the Bamar majority that occupies the country’s centre and lent its name to colonial Burma.

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Still it’s clear that the people of Myanmar have embraced their right to vote: 5643 candidates stood across 1119 constituencies in an election where the bicameral parliament and regional legislatures were up for grabs.

There was a strong turnout by voters despite the COVID-19 pandemic which after being under control for the first six months has swept the commercial hub Yangon and regional areas in recent months.

There has been growing censorship from the government, mimicking the restrictions of its military predecessor. The military retains an effective grip on the nation, leaving it firmly in the column of authoritarian south-east Asian states. 

Suu Kyi was awarded the peace prize in 1991 in the midst of a stretch of 15 years in and out of house arrest as she became a beacon of resistance against a repressive military junta which had taken the nation from one of Asia’s wealthiest to one of the world’s poorest in just 60 years.

But she has gained opprobrium in recent years for her defence of the military campaign of ethnic cleansing/genocide against the Rohingya. She went further last year, travelling to the UN court in The Hague to defend the military.

Her signature Panglong peace plan, aimed at bringing an end to the serial civil wars that have plagued the nation since its 1948 independence from Great Britain, has been a failure. Not only have key groups opted out but a fresh Buddhist militia known as the Arakan Army in restive Rakhine state — home to the Rohingya — has emerged as one of the country’s biggest and most deadly, with a reported 25,000 members. 

The National League for Democracy’s administration has been plagued by incompetence and nepotism, failing to provide much of the economic prosperity that was hoped for. But among people in central Myanmar in particular — and even more reluctant ethnic minorities — Suu Kyi can do little wrong, and she maintains a steely grip on the hearts of her people as their protection against a return to all-out military rule.

The armed force continues to hold an unelected 25% of the seats in parliament as well as the defence, border and home affairs portfolios, handing it control of all security forces and the country’s purse strings. But it continued to poll poorly via its proxy United Solidarity and Development Party to the extent that it was resorting to Trumpian calls of election fraud in the days after the poll.

The poll also marks the moment where the NLD must accelerate its efforts to install credible leadership in preparation for the next poll when Suu Kyi will be 80.

The overall situation in Myanmar has cruelled its dreams of surging foreign investment, except for China which is keen to control its significant energy reserves and sees it as a shortcut across south-east Asia to the Middle East and beyond — as it does much of south-east Asia.

This has also put it back in the too hard basket for many Western countries, including Australia. Although it maintains a decent embassy in Yangon it has so far baulked at shifting to the remote capital Nay Pyi Taw. It still delivers some aid but this has been cut back in recent years as funds were diverted to the Pacific from many south-east Asian nations.

This is a situation that should be reversed and more effort made to assist Myanmar with its uncertain journey towards a better society.

Aung San Suu Kyi has revealed she is far from perfect but right now she is all Myanmar has and the people of that country have once more clearly spoken. It’s time we listened.