[Just as important, citizens were not afraid to vote against the ruling party, thanks largely to the government’s efforts in the last five years to dismantle the police state. The administration of President Thein Sein reduced censorship, freed political prisoners and allowed civic organizations, long suppressed during the military dictatorship, to flourish.]
Calendars of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in
Kyi has an emotional, almost religious, connection with voters. She embodies hope,
freedom and defiance. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times
NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — This capital, built from scratch by Myanmar’s former dictators, is filled with soldiers, police officers and civil servants. But even here, where most people work for the government, they voted to throw it out of power.
The National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won seven of eight districts in Naypyidaw, part of a stunning nationwide electoral defeat of a military establishment that has ruled Myanmar since 1962.
“I’ve worked for the government for 25 years, and nothing has changed,” said Daw Myint Myint Than, a civil servant in the Ministry of Labor. “I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if I didn’t vote for Daw Suu.”
At the beginning of the decade, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the country’s independence hero, was still under house arrest by the military government. In the elections on Sunday, her party won in the countryside and the cities, in ethnic minority areas and the heartland of the majority Burmese. Nearly every senior member of the military-backed ruling party was defeated.
Her party’s sweep was so thorough that one candidate who died before the vote still defeated his ruling-party rival.
The official results are still being tabulated, but all signs so far point to that rarest of things: an authoritarian government peacefully giving up power after what outside election monitors have deemed a credible vote.
’s citizens are still coming to
grips with the results. But the outcome appears to stem from the simple fact
that veneration for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was underestimated and the ruling
party’s strength overestimated. Myanmar
In the days before the elections, the ruling party organized large convoys of tractors to ride through the countryside. Thousands of farmers, wearing T-shirts given out by the party, chanted slogans and waved party flags. Wedding bands performed patriotic songs.
But that show of support was misleading. Many of the farmers said they had taken part in the rallies because they were paid, but when it came time to stamp their ballots, they voted for the National League for Democracy.
“It was easy money,” said U Win Naing, 43, a farmer who was paid the equivalent of $12 to join the ruling party’s campaign convoy. He never had any doubt whom he would vote for. “I wanted freedom from the dictatorship,” he said.
The campaign rallies by the National League for Democracy, by contrast, were more organic. Shopkeepers donated food. Supporters drew up their own banners. Vast convoys paraded chaotically through towns in the countryside.
The party’s strategy was to contest nearly every constituency in the country, including in ethnic minority areas where it risked splitting the vote with smaller ethnic parties and allowing the ruling party a victory.
But the plan appears to have paid off. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party far exceeded expectations in the upland minority areas and even defeated some ethnic parties.
Across the nation, the party focused on the micro level, officials said. “Our main instruction was to go door to door,” said U Win Htein, a senior member of the National League for Democracy.
The party reminded voters of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s lineage by holding celebrations in July for the 100th birth anniversary of her father, U Aung San.
Just as important, citizens were not afraid to vote against the ruling party, thanks largely to the government’s efforts in the last five years to dismantle the police state. The administration of President Thein Sein reduced censorship, freed political prisoners and allowed civic organizations, long suppressed during the military dictatorship, to flourish.
“A big factor was the freedoms that have existed since 2011 — in terms of the press, the Internet, the relaxing of censorship, the ability to hold demonstrations,” said David Steinberg, an expert on Myanmar at Georgetown University. The government “allowed campaigning to have a lot more freedom than in the past,” he said.
Mr. Thein Sein was not unpopular. Seventy-two percent of people surveyed in October by the
, a polling agency based in Merdeka Center , said they approved of the way he was
administering the country. Malaysia
“The majority of
citizens appreciate Thein Sein
for the reforms he tried to bring, and opening up the country,” said Tan Seng
Keat, the research manager at Merdeka. “But this alone cannot address their
fervent desire to have a government chosen by the people and to put an end to
an indirect rule by the military.” Myanmar
Voters blamed the ruling party for 50 years of military control and for a poor economy.
“They seemed to have the sentiment that the current leaders have been governing for 50 years,” said U Khin Maung Htoo, a candidate for the ruling party in
Yangon, the country’s largest city.
The government has courted foreign investment, but the countryside, to a large extent, remains just as impoverished as it was when the current government came to power five years ago. Many farmers in
still use oxen to plow their
The combination of freedom of expression and poverty proved toxic for the government.
“Most of the poorer people, their lives have not improved over the past five years,” said U Yan Myo Thein, a political commentator. “So they didn’t want the same government, and they need immediate change. That’s the big message of the vote.”
Some analysts pointed out that not only had the military allowed the vote, but the generals had been the ones to set it in motion.
“They knew they needed to change the political system,” said Priscilla A. Clapp, former chief of mission at the United States Embassy in
. “This transition has been
carefully managed.” Myanmar
“You have to give these guys some credit for what’s happened,” Ms. Clapp said of the military leaders. “They put it in place.”
The biggest factor in the landslide, analysts and voters agreed, was the star power of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has an emotional, almost religious, connection with voters.
But when voters are pressed on why they love her, especially in the countryside, they often have blank stares. The National League for Democracy issued a platform, but very few voters seemed aware of it.
“I don’t know anything about her,” said U Saw Yan Naing, 28, a farmer who lives outside Naypyidaw. “I voted for her because she is the daughter of Aung San.”
History moves slowly here, and official results from the vote continue to dribble out. As of Thursday evening, the opposition had won 327 seats of the 491 contested in the elections. The ruling party had won 40.
Deep suspicions remain about the army’s intentions. After the National League for Democracy won a landslide in the last open elections, in 1990, the military nullified the vote and jailed the opposition en masse.
That could still happen, of course, but so far, the military has said the right things.
On Wednesday, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the armed forces, congratulated the opposition for “getting a majority of seats” in Parliament. On Thursday, he said the military would “do what is best in cooperation with the new government.”
The armed forces, he said, would “continue to strengthen the multiparty democracy system.”
And there are signs of change.
For decades, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been belittled in the state news media. On Thursday, a government newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, reported that the military and the president had congratulated her on her victory.
“Welcoming the New Guard,” said the paper’s banner headline.
Seth Mydans, Austin Ramzy and Wai Moe contributed reporting from
, and Saw Nang from Naypyidaw. Yangon, Myanmar