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.