Supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party wave flags in front of the party's office in Mandalay on November 8, 2020, as ballots for the parliamentary elections are being counted after the polls closed. Photo: AFP/Ye Naing Ye

Gone are the days when Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) confronted the military with demands for a return to civilian rule and a more democratic order. Long gone, too, is an era when the powerful military jailed and harassed NLD activists to bring them to heel.  

After backing losing parties at repeated elections, the military has awoken to new political realities, as has the NLD. The once bitter enemies have apparently come to the realization that they must co-exist, an accommodation that turned the November 8 general election into a democratic red herring.

Although votes were still being tallied as of late Monday, preliminary results indicated another sweeping victory for the NLD. At the same time, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), until now the military’s preferred party, apparently did not make much headway with voters as an alternative choice.

Reports suggested tensions between the NLD and military were running high ahead of the vote, with commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing criticizing the government’s supposed “unacceptable mistakes” in the lead-up to the election which he said could stoke violence. He later said he would “accept the result that comes from the people’s wishes.”

Indeed, another overwhelming NLD win will raise the inevitable question about how much longer the military will continue to support one losing proxy party after another when it can more readily join forces with the NLD to protect and perpetuate its interests.

Myanmar’s recent electoral history points to how this until now unlikely marriage of convenience has come about. When Myanmar first went to the polls to elect a Pyuthu Hluttaw (legislature) in 1990, the military-backed the National Unity Party (NUP), a new name for the Burma Socialist Program Party, previously Myanmar’s only legally permitted political party until a 1988 nationwide uprising against dictatorship changed the political landscape.

The NLD’s leader, then-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, was at the time under house arrest but her party nonetheless scored 392 out of 492 seats up for grabs while the NUP won a paltry ten. The then-ruling military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, knew then it had to shift the political goalposts. That elected assembly was never convened.

Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi casts an advance vote at a polling station in Naypyidaw on October 29, 2020. Photo: AFP/Thet Aung

Instead, about 100 MPs-elect together with another 600 or so delegates who were appointed by the military took years to draft a new constitution. That charter was finally adopted after a rigged referendum in 2008, by which time the military had realized that the NUP had outlived whatever usefulness it once might have had.

The generals then looked to another organization known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) – with then-army chief general Than Shwe as its patron – and modeled after Indonesia’s Golkar, a military-backed party that successfully made the transition from authoritarian to democratic rule.

Myanmar’s USDA once claimed to have 24 million members despite becoming notorious for violence against its opponents. In June 2010, the USDA was registered as a political party, the USDP, to contest elections scheduled for November that year. The NLD boycotted that poll.

Running virtually uncontested, the USDP scored 259 of 325 seats in a new lower house, 129 of 168 seats in the upper house and 495 out of 661 seats in regional and state assemblies. The military-appointed a quarter of the MPs in the legislative bodies as well as to regional and state assemblies.

But at a real democratic contest in 2015, the USDP was routed just like its forerunner NUP, with the NLD winning 255 of the 330 contested seats in the lower house and 135 of 168 seats up for grabs in the upper house.

The USDP won a paltry 11 seats in the upper and 30 in the lower house. Even with military-appointees, the “military bloc” in parliament could not challenge the NLD beyond veto powers it has on constitutional changes.

Sunday’s elections are expected to deliver a similar result. Meanwhile, the USDP has become a party led by old, ex-army officers who not even today’s officers can easily relate to and who have failed to garner any popular support. In short, the USDP has apparently run its course and become obsolete.

Now enter the “new” NLD, a force the military can no longer afford to ignore. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing had questioned the credibility of the election and warned of violence afterward. Some interpreted as a reminder of the right the military has under the 2008 constitution to seize power in the case of any “insurgency and violence” that may “cause disintegration of the Union.”

Myanmar’s Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing salutes during the 73rd anniversary of the Martyrs’ Day ceremony in Yangon on July 19, 2020. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/Pool/AFP

But such drastic, democracy-suspending action would likely itself lead to violence, so it’s hardly an option for the military. On the other hand, the once fiery pro-democracy activist Suu Kyi has mellowed considerably since long before she became an MP in 2012 she led masses in the streets and at rallies where she openly challenged the military’s power.

In 2013, she stunned many of her local — and especially international — supporters by saying in an interview with the BBC: “It’s genuine, I’m fond of the army…because I always thought of it as my father’s army.”

Her father, Aung San, led the struggle for independence from colonial Britain but was assassinated in July 1947, half a year before that could be achieved.

Myanmar’s generals may still not fully trust Suu Kyi in light of her past struggles for democracy, but their view of her may have softened considerably after she went to The Hague in December last year to defend the country’s record before the International Court of Justice, where it stands accused of genocide perpetrated against Muslim Rohingyas.

Given her subsequent pariah status in the West — where she has been stripped of one honor after another bestowed for her days as a military-persecuted pro-democracy leader — she may be even “fonder” of the military than ever before.

After four years as state counsellor, or the nominal leader of government, Suu Kyi must have realized by now that any attempt to change the country’s basic power structure is futile as it would require more than 75% of MPs voting in favor of substantial constitutional amendments, a move the military’s 25% bloc would block.  

Early election results from military-dominated constituencies also indicate support there for the NLD rather than the USDP. Suu Kyi may have become a disappointment among many of her erstwhile supporters, especially in ethnic areas and among the urban middle classes.

NLD supporters hold up portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the party’s headquarters in Yangon, November 8, 2020, Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main

But support for her remains strong in the ethnic Bamar-dominated heartland and that’s all the military needs from a political partner to uphold the political status quo.

For Suu Kyi, charming the military has proven a better strategy than confronting it. They are already working together in a government that has three powerful ministers — defense, home affairs and border affairs — who are appointed by the military.

As such, November 8’s red herring election will do less to decide Myanmar’s future than what is likely happening behind the scenes in power-sharing talks between the former adversaries who are increasingly becoming indispensable partners.

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