By-elections for 19 seats in Myanmar’s parliament were held on April 1, 2017. Some of these seats had fallen vacant either because their occupants had become cabinet ministers or elected Members of Parliament (MPs) had died, while other seats had remained vacant as elections did not take place in those constituencies due to security reasons in 2015.1 Nine of these seats were for Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives or the lower house), three for Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities or the upper house) and seven for regional representations from the Shan State and Kayah State. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won nine seats in these by-elections, seen as a test for her administration which had come to power in early 2016 following nation-wide elections held in November 2015. The military-controlled Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won two seats and, interestingly enough, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) won six seats. This may be seen as a warning bell to Suu Kyi, as her government has not been able to garner much support from the ethnic nationalities. For, the by-elections of 2012 and parliamentary election in 2015 did not see the emergence of any ethnic party as a strong political competitor to the NLD.
94 candidates (18 each from the NLD and USDP, 51 from different ethnic political parties and seven individual candidates) from 24 political parties contested the April 1 by-elections.2 Strikingly, only a quarter of the two million registered voters came out to cast their votes because many voters were either not well informed about the by-elections or were not interested in political affairs.3
During the last one year, Suu Kyi’s administration came under criticism in the domestic and international spheres for several reasons. Suu Kyi has been criticised for the NLD government’s crackdown on the media, delayed reforms and development processes, an ambiguous peace procedure to mitigate the decades-old ethnic unrest and, most importantly, for the mishandling of the Rohingya issue. Since the inception of the NLD government, around 160,000 people have been displaced in Myanmar due to ethnic turmoil; thousands of Rohingyas have lost their lives and livelihood; and ethnic unrest has made a major comeback in Shan State. Aware of the frustration among the common people, especially, the ethnic minorities, Suu Kyi, in a televised interview, accepted her fault in the week that preceded the by-elections.4
Amongst everything, ethnic politics definitely played a major role in deciding the result of the by-elections. Local media reports indicated that the SNLD had more chances to win as voters in the constituencies that went to polls were unhappy with the NLD government’s inability to bring an end to ethnic clashes. The two townships in the Shan State where by-elections were held, namely, Kyethi and Mong Hsu, fall under the active areas of the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), which is the political arm of the Shan State Army-North. The failure of the NLD government to convince the ethnic leaders to join the union peace process had definitely added to the frustration among the local populace in Shan State. Since they got an opportunity to cast their votes for the first time in seven years, it was only normal for them to show their support for their own people rather than NLD candidates who barely share their everyday problems and have to depend on translators for interaction. (The previous two general elections were cancelled in these two townships for security concerns.)5
Another reason for the NLD’s indifferent electoral performance is Suu Kyi’s absence from party activities ever since she became Foreign Minister and assumed responsibility as the State Counsellor. According to the Section 232(k) of the 2008 Constitution, ministers cannot participate in party activities. Hence, the NLD’s election campaign was led by other NLD leaders whose popularity does not equal Suu Kyi’s. This resulted in much less-crowded rallies in and around Yangon and might have had an impact on voters and the popularity of the party.
As Suu Kyi shares the same mind set with the former Junta on the Rohingya issue, NLD has lost its acceptance among them too. One administrator of a Rohingya village, Myint Kyaw, mentioned that “Before the election (of 2015), we supported the NLD. Now we don’t,… The main role of the government is to protect us, that’s all we want.”6
The result of the by-election clearly indicates the need for the NLD government to speedily engender trust among the ethnic minorities. A successful peace process and peace negotiations can be one aspect of it; others include regular interactions with the common people from the conflict ridden areas and efforts to understand their problems. This should be initiated without delay or hesitation given the fact that, despite all hurdles and criticisms, Suu Kyi remains the most revered political leader and NLD the best recognised political party with a majority in parliament. NLD and Suu Kyi need not to be over-confident that most of Myanmar is ready to give the one-year old civilian government more time before it begins to resolve problems ranging from the economy to ethnicity and narcotics to governance. Hence, prompt and pragmatic actions to ameliorate the ethnic divisions and mistrust are required urgently.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.