by Peter Popham
Editor's Note: The historic parliamentary byelections in Myanmar on Sunday will (when the official results are announced) likely send Aung San Suu Kyi to Parliament. Her party, the National League for Democracy, is also poised for a landslide victory.
This marks a dramatic reversal of fortunes for Suu Kyi, who was imprisoned by the military junta and later kept under house arrest for a total of over 21 years after she and her party were robbed of an election victory in 1990. In that election, the first-multi party election to elect a committee to draft a constitution, the NLD under Suu Kyi (who was under house arrest) won a landslide victory. But the military rulers refused to recognise the results, and ruled Myanmar until 2011, when they yielded ground to the reformist President Thein Sein.
Peter Popham (website), who covered South Asia for The Independent in the 1990s, was eye-witness to the 1990 elections; later he narrated his experiences in his book The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, published by Random House India 2011.
Firstpost reproduces here, with permission, Popham's account of that 1990 election. These extracts are drawn from Part Four, Chapter Two: Landslide Victory.
On Sunday 27 May 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi, still under house arrest, cast her vote in her country’s first free general elections for thirty years. The ballot paper was put into an envelope which was sealed and taken from her home by a regime official.
To most foreign observers, it looked like a futile gesture. For weeks the international media had been scrutinising Burma’s upcoming poll and concluding that it was bound to be rigged. The military junta had done everything in their power to ensure a win for the National Unity Party (NUP), its tame proxy party.
The top leadership of the NLD had been put out of action, with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest since July 1989. Tin Oo, the retired general who was chairman of the party and who had been detained the same day, was sentenced to three years’ hard labour in December and taken to Insein Jail.
Most of their closest colleagues had been jailed and would not re-emerge for years. The party was now run by a skeleton staff of those who remained at liberty, led by U Kyi Maung, aged 72, a former colonel who had been one of the first people to join Suu two summers before.
In January the regime sought to neutralise the threat posed by Suu’s personal popularity by barring her from standing as a candidate because of her marriage to a foreigner – a new rule. Her image was everywhere in the NLD’s campaign, on banners, T-shirts, posters, badges and scarves; cassette tapes of her campaign speeches were sold from market stalls. But the lady herself was firmly locked away.
General Khin Nyunt, head of Military Intelligence (MI) and the second most powerful man in the junta, in two long speeches drove home the message that Suu’s party was a menace to the country’s future. On 5 August he repeated the now-familiar claim that the NLD had been infiltrated by communists. The following month, at a press conference where he spoke for seven hours, he made the diametrically opposite allegation that Suu and her party were at the heart of an international rightist conspiracy involving powerful foreign countries. The speech was later published in a 300-page book with the catchy title The Conspiracy of Treasonous Minions and Traitorous Cohorts.
Emasculating the NLD, however, was only part of the task of manufacturing a good result. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, the ruling military council) now set about tackling the remaining challenges with military thoroughness.
Other enemies of army rule were put under house arrest, including former prime minister Nu.The regime identified city neighbourhoods with a high proportion of opposition supporters and broke them up. In the months leading up to the election at least half a million people around the country were forced to abandon their homes in the cities and move to crudely constructed and malaria-ridden new townships far away.
Practically all conventional forms of campaigning, including rallies, door-to-door lobbying and media interviews, were banned. Criticism of the military was a criminal offence. Gatherings of more than five people remained illegal under martial law rules, though each party of the 93 registered for the poll was allowed to hold a single rally, on condition that seven days’ notice was given. Each was also permitted a single, pre-approved ten minute statement on state television, and fifteen minutes on state radio.
To make sure the heavens were on their side, the regime made sure to pick a good day: 27 May contained a plethora of lucky nines, two plus seven for the day itself, plus the fact that it fell in the fourth week of the fifth month.
An offer from the US to send election monitors was tartly rebuffed, and all foreigners were banned from the country for weeks before the election.
On the eve of polling, the generals could be well pleased with their handiwork: Myanmar, as she now was, had been through the wringer in the past 24 months since Ne Win’s crass decision to demonetise the currency and then throw a spanner into the constitutional arrangements by raising the possibility of multi-party elections. But since the locking up of ‘that woman’ as Ne Win referred to Suu (he refused to pronounce her name), the situation had improved all round.
The socialist ideology which had conditioned policy for a generation was consigned to the waste bin, and Burma reopened for business. Some Western countries may have found it awkward dealing on normal trade terms with a country that had slaughtered thousands of its unarmed citizens in cold blood, but Thailand, Singapore and South Korea had no such inhibitions, snapping up contracts to extract timber, jade, precious stones and seafood at bargain prices.
A South Korean company, Yukong, became the first foreign company to be allowed to explore for oil onshore, rapidly followed by Shell, Idemitsu, Petro-Canada, and finally the American oil firms Amoco and Unocal. When the army roared into downtown Rangoon on 18 September 1988, the nation’s foreign exchange reserves had been less than $10 million. Now they were between $200 and $300 million.
Tight security prevented any significant demonstrations to mark the anniversaries of the great uprising of 8/8/88 or the military crackdown of the following month. Meanwhile, in a further sign of America’s softening approach, Coca-Cola signed a deal to bottle its drinks. To demonstrate to the general public and the world at large that SLORC knew a thing or two about good governance, a major clean-up campaign was launched, and Rangoon’s public buildings gleamed with fresh paint.
The governments of western Europe and the US remained dubious, unwilling to forget how SLORC had come to power. But an election run with military efficiency, producing a solid working majority for the NUP – or with the votes shared between so many parties that the army would be justified in retaining control – would surely bring them round.
So confident were the generals that they began to relax a little. They admitted a handful of foreign journalists and television news crews to watch the Burmese line up and vote. As polling day approached, martial law restrictions were partially lifted. The soldiers thronging Suu’s villa were temporarily replaced by police in plain clothes. Army and uniformed police disappeared from the streets. The NLD took advantage of the pull-back to take to the streets in their pickup trucks, imploring the people of Rangoon to be sure to give them their vote.
In the end the people needed no imploring. The lines began forming outside schools and government offices where voting was to take place early on the morning of 27 May. People put on their Sunday best to perform this important and extremely rare civic duty. As in India, every registered party was symbolised by an icon depicted on the voting slip. These included a beach ball, a comb, a tennis racket and an umbrella. Powerfully evocative symbols such as the peacock – the original symbol of the NLD, revived for the 2012 byelections – were banned, but the NLD had cannily chosen the kamauk, the farmer’s straw hat, to symbolise their party – allowing supporters to indicate their preference by donning normal rustic costume.
Nationwide, more than 20 million people were eligible to vote. In seven constituencies where the army was fighting insurgents, polling was cancelled altogether; in many other border areas, only a fraction of registered voters managed to vote because of the violence. But in most of the country the turnout was heavy, with some 72 per cent casting their votes in total.
Late on the night of polling the Chinese news service, Xinhua, was the first foreign news agency to report the first result of Burma’s first election for thirty years: the NLD candidate for Seikan Township in Yangondaw, a woman called San San, obtained over half the votes cast.
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That result was followed by a flood more. And to the shock and horror of the military the overwhelming majority of results went the same way. Voters did not care for the Evergreen Young Men’s Association, the National Peace and Comfort Party, Nu’s League for Democracy and Peace, nor for the army’s favourite, the National Unity Party. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party was sweeping the board.
Results continued to dribble in over the coming days, and practically all of them tended the same way. The junta had said it would take three weeks for all results to be known, but it became clear within 24 hours that Suu’s party, all of whose top leaders were in jail or detained in their homes, had won a landslide victory. And nobody knew what to do next.
This, according to Bertil Lintner, the veteran Swedish Burma-watcher, following events from Bangkok, was when the NLD missed its best opportunity to change Burma for ever – without lifting a hand in anger. ‘At the last minute the regime had allowed the foreign media in,’ he pointed out – and this gave the NLD a rare and precious weapon, one which they totally failed to use.
This was before electronic media and so on, but nevertheless the world media came in, including television networks, for the actual election day. Once they had seen the way things were going the government searched for ways to delay and delay and delay the counting of the votes, saying, oh, we have to bring the ballot boxes to Rangoon and count them here and things like that, and it would take a long time. But it was already clear that the NLD had won.
What the NLD should have done at that point [before all votes were counted but when it was clear that they had won] was to declare victory: to hold a press conference at the party headquarters in Rangoon, invite the entire media, and say, we’ve won the election and therefore it is ridiculous that our leader is under house arrest. At three o’clock this afternoon we are going to go and liberate her. And then they could have sent out a lot of speaker vans around Rangoon to tell everyone to go to University Avenue at three o’clock. And millions of people would have shown up. They could have carried her off to the television station and she could have been put in charge and called for calm and the loyalty of the armed forces and all the rest of it. It would have been all over in forty-eight hours.
But nothing of the sort happened: the reason being, Lintner, says, that the party was now essentially leaderless.
The NLD mishandled it. When Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, the party was decapitated. They were all arrested, all the smart people in the leadership. So the initiative went to the second rung in the party, people like U Kyi Maung, a nice old man, a retired army colonel. Kyi Maung was strong enough to keep the whole thing together and lead it through the election to victory. But then he said, now the military has shown some goodwill by letting the election happen and making sure the vote goes fairly, so we have to show some goodwill too and not push things.
They didn’t lose their nerve, they just miscalculated. By saying okay, they’ve shown some goodwill, we have to show some goodwill in return, they gave enough time for the military to re-group and strike back.