Results in Burma's general election so far indicate a major victory for the opposition National League for Democracy. The party, led by Nobel laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, swept seats in Rangoon, the country's biggest city, and is confident of further victories as millions of votes cast on Sunday get counted.
The election is the latest signpost along Burma's long, fitful journey toward a genuine democracy. Even if Suu Kyi's NLD wins a good majority of seats in the country's parliament, it will have to contend with a bloc of lawmakers hand-picked by the military who will occupy a quarter of the assembly's seats.
For good reason, even with victory in sight, Suu Kyi cautioned supporters to wait for the final tally, which may take a few more days to emerge. They know from bitter experience what it feels like to have a democratic triumph cruelly turned into a defeat.
The last time her party stood poised to clinch a dramatic electoral landslide, the result was nullified. In May 1990, Burma, also known as Myanmar, staged a general election, a vote that came in the wake of a dramatic pro-democracy uprising in 1988 that saw Suu Kyi emerge as a leader of those opposed to the country's military rule.
In a context of martial law and extensive political repression, 93 parties contested the election. Suu Kyi, detained by authorities in 1989, was already under house arrest. Surprisingly, the vote itself was not manipulated. Turnout of 72 percent saw the NLD pick up about 60 percent of the vote — a mandate large enough to give the party control over 80 percent of Burma's legislature.
But the ruling junta, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, did not hand over power to the people. Instead, it cracked down further on its opponents.
My colleague William Branigin journeyed to Burma five months after the May election and reported on the mood of fear at the time, which included the stifling of certain Buddhist monasteries that were hotbeds for dissent.
Contributing to the atmosphere is the Orwellian quality of many of the junta's actions and pronouncements. Large red billboards around Mandalay and Yangon proclaim slogans in Burmese and English such as "Crush All Destructive Elements" and "Observance of Discipline Leads to Safety." One, across the street from the U.S. Embassy, reads "Down With Minions of Colonialism."
In an account of raids against six Mandalay monasteries Oct. 24, the official radio said the monks in charge "were full of smiles, happily permitting the searches because they were encouraged by the efforts being made through the use of power to purify the religion."
"We are helpless without arms," an elderly Buddhist abbot told The Post then. An office worker from Rangoon lamented: "We're just like slaves right now. People just hate this government."
In the city of Mandalay, famed for its myriad pagodas, Branigin was briefly detained as he investigated the crackdown on opposition monks. He painted the scene of a pariah state's long isolation:
Today this former British colony seems a drab and fearful place, dominated by a junta that appears bent on stamping out even token opposition and whose foreign policy is based essentially on isolationism and xenophobia. In many respects it is a country forgotten by time. Although limited economic reforms have allowed slight modernizations in recent years, buses whose design predates World War II still wheeze down the streets, and weeds and shrubs grow out of crevices in the capital's decaying British colonial buildings.
"The winds of change are blowing everywhere but in Burma," a senior Western diplomat told Branigin. "It is absolutely certain that [the junta] will never, ever allow the [NLD] to take over. There will be no free elections anymore in Burma."
Of course, a lot has changed since then. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and is now once more the country's most visible and well-known politician. In 2012, she was able to travel to Oslo and accept the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to her in absentia in 1991. Foreign investment, particularly from countries such as China and India, has flooded in. The U.S. and other Western governments have cautiously welcomed Burma's steps toward political reform and democracy.
Yet, as in the past, there are real concerns. It's unclear to what extent the country's secretive military will accept an NLD victory. Because of her supposed foreign connections, including her children's British nationality, Suu Kyi faces legal barriers to taking power. Questions loom over her role in the aftermath of the elections.
From being the standard bearers of dissent and pro-democracy activism, Burma's monks now are more often in the headlines as agents of an ugly, right-wing nationalism that has led to the demonization of minorities, particularly Muslims and the stateless Rohingya people, in the country.
Suu Kyi's NLD may not experience the same brutal fate it met a quarter of a century ago, but much, as then, still hangs in the balance.
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