When the world remained fixated on updates from the US poll theatre, another national election in Myanmar went virtually unnoticed. This was expected, but Myanmar’s November 8 election should interest many for the way it demonstrated how nationalism does not care for any standard scale of moral rectitude. The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) led by the de facto head of government, State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi—the Nobel peace laureate much vilified now in the Western world for her defence of the country’s military action against Rohingyas—returned with a landslide larger than its historic 2015 victory.
The NLD now commands absolute majority in the bicameral National Assembly, together known as Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, consisting of Pyithu Hluttaw (ower house) and Amyotha Hluttaw (upper house). There are also 14 sub-national Hluttaws corresponding to the country’s seven ethnic states and seven regions. By the country’s 2008 Constitution, 25% seats in all Hluttaws are reserved for the military. The NLD’s main opposition, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, USDP, together with its 23 allies in the 93-party fray, have been pushed further into the margins from the roughly 10% representation they won in 2015.
Few ever doubted the NLD would win. However, the cautious popular pre-poll forecast was that it would emerge as the single largest party and therefore would need to seek alliance partners to form the next government and that the pound of flesh for such a compromise would be expensive. These predictions are now in history’s dustbin. What was also demonstrated is that nationalism is a majoritarian enterprise. When minority populations are given to similar instincts, these are treated as aberrations. When Suu Kyi formally defended the Myanmar military’s alleged genocidal campaign against the Rohingyas at the International Court of Justice in December 2019, she came to be portrayed as persona non grata in the Western world.
Yet, what only very few anticipated happened: Respect for her only deepened in her own country, especially amongst the majority Bamar. The failure to predict this occurred despite an emerging pattern of nationalism worldwide, including India. In all these places, conventional morality ended up thrown into the winds not just by right-wing political parties, but also by large sections of their populations. In India, the tussle over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), many would have noticed, has this same ring of moral ambiguity.
The November elections also belied another expectation. Myanmar’s ethnic states were predicted to drift further away from the mainstream and the ethnic political parties were expected to consolidate as a block, or blocks, outside of the NLD to become kingmakers. Quite to the contrary, the NLD has made inroads into these states as well and, if it wishes, can foist its own governments there too, given also the fact that the 2008 Constitution leaves it up to the national government and not the winners in contests in the local arenas to form the state governments.
Many, however, think that this victory by first-past-the-post system may be deceptive, for though losing out on the number of seats, support bases of the defeated ethnic parties can still be very large; therefore, their alienation can still mean big trouble for the militancy-torn country. The challenge before Suu Kyi therefore is to acknowledge this and opt for what many peace scholars like John Paul Lederach have called the “moral imagination”, which rests on the belief that often a sincere handshake can resolve conflicts better than the best legal treaties or victories. Despite its super majority, the hope then among many is that the NLD would still strive to partner with ethnic parties and see beyond just the immediate politics of power.
But how has Myanmar come to be in this state of chaos? Jurist A G Noorani in India-China Boundary Problem may have provided a possible answer. In the decolonisation of India and Myanmar, New Delhi’s path was one of transfer of power and it retained all existing institutions of governance to maintain a continuity and then transform at its own pace later. In the case of Myanmar, it was simply an end of the paramountcy of the British, leaving the country to begin institution-building from scratch, throwing it into turmoil. Shelby Tucker profiled this chaos convincingly in Burma: The Curse of Independence. Other than radical ethnic unrests and a plummeting economy, the country was also being taken for granted by foreign powers.
With CIA patronage, two army divisions of the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang had even retreated into Myanmar in their fight against Mao’s communist regime. The apprehension of the nation falling apart was so strong that even the 1962 military coup was widely welcomed, many thinking it would be temporary. Power, however, works differently, and those who wield it have seldom relinquished it willingly, and Myanmar’s military regime lasted five decades.
Even now, this subliminal anxiety of the nation disintegrating lingers on. This is also noticeable in the 2008 Constitution that envisages a very centralised polity, with the outlying ethnic states treated as no more than surrogates of the Union government. Indeed, as democracy begins to set roots on its soil, Myanmar’s struggle continues to be very much about building credible institutions of governance.
Pradip Phanjoubam (email@example.com)
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics