YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s ruling party, created by the military, says it must re-think strategy after by-election victories for the party of Aung San Suu Kyi who has raised suspicion in the ranks by suggesting the generals will need to withdraw from politics.
To prevent more losses in a 2015 general election that could cripple its influence, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) acknowledges it must reinvent itself, possibly by adopting the pro-democratic ideas and populism the junta brutally suppressed for years.
“It’s natural for us soldiers to review ourselves after a battle,” said Dr Soe Min, the 49-year-old USDP candidate and former soldier who lost in Suu Kyi’s Kawhmu constituency. “We mend what we should and decide what we should do.”
The dominance of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) at the ballot box on Sunday was stunning. It took 43 of 45 available seats. For the ruling party and its former generals who kept Suu Kyi under house arrest until November 2010, this raises a troubling question: Is Myanmar changing too fast?
Htay Oo, secretary general of the USDP, says the party needs to change. “Of course, we have to review if we have any weakness. We need to make our policy known to the people,” he told the Burmese-language service of Voice of America.
Although only 7 percent of the legislative seats were up for grabs in the by-elections, the NLD’s win illustrated a hunger for democracy and rejection of the military’s stake in politics after five decades of misrule in the former British colony also known as Burma.
“WAR ON THE MILITARY”?
Some liken the NLD candidates to a Trojan Horse rolled into a parliament stacked with retired soldiers and uniformed military appointees, protectors of the army’s political power.
One of Suu Kyi’s top priorities is to amend a 2008 constitution drawn up under the supervision of the then ruling junta that reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military, and allows the president to hand power to the armed forces chief in an ill-defined emergency.
In a speech less than a week before the elections, armed forces chief General Min Aung Hlaing vowed to protect a constitution that guarantees a “political leadership role” to the military.
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Suu Kyi has different ideas. She told a news conference on Friday the military must realise “the future of this country is their future, and that reform in this country means reform for them as well”.
That has rattled soldiers who have long regarded themselves as the pillar of the nation.
“I can’t say I‘m optimistic. We’re very disappointed,” an army-appointed member of parliament told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
“Some think it was like declaring war on the military. To most of the military delegates, her slogan is tantamount to a threat to drive us back to the barracks as soon as possible.”
The USDP’s defeat came despite a wave of reforms: the release of hundreds of political prisoners, loosening of media controls, legalisation of trade unions and protests, truce talks with ethnic minority rebels and sweeping economic changes.
It followed a November 2010 election widely seen as rigged that ended 49 years of direct military rule and swept the USDP to dominance in parliament. The NLD boycotted that vote.
In the run-up to Sunday’s by-election, the USDP had much in its favour: big spending power, control of 76 percent of the legislature and powerful allies in the judiciary, civil service, business and military.
But what they did not have was Suu Kyi, the wildly popular pro-democracy champion and daughter of the country’s independence hero who led a non-violent struggle against dictatorship for two decades, most of which she was under house arrest.
“In Burmese history, a political party allied with the military has never won public support so the USDP will need a careful rethink and a huge shake-up,” said Aung Naing Oo of the Vahu Development Institute advocacy group.
“Our politics is about a cult of personality and Aung San Suu Kyi represented love, defiance and a bright future.”
The USDP even lost in its own back yard, the new capital Naypyitaw. The seat vacated by Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo, a known ex-junta hardliner, was won by the NLD’s Zeya Thaw, a hip-hop singer and former political prisoner.
“Some in the army may see Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD as a threat to the nation and want to take matters into their own hands,” said Trevor Wilson, an academic and former Australian ambassador to Myanmar.
“But they can also now see quite clearly that the people will not accept a return to military rule and that a peaceful or stage-managed coup by the army is not really feasible politically any longer.”
Suu Kyi, 66, is expected to avoid direct confrontation with the military and to prioritise socio-economic improvements to consolidate support inside and outside of parliament.
While ex-military hardliners exist in the government and USDP, those with the most influence appear to be reformist President Thein Sein and lower house speaker Thura Shwe Mann.
What seems more likely is an accommodation between the military, the USDP and Suu Kyi to ensure reform continues and to prevent a descent into chaos. As Myanmar pushes for sanctions to be lifted to unleash a wave of foreign investment, a power-sharing government after the 2015 election is seen as the best hope for stability.
“Aung San Suu Kyi isn’t stupid enough to rock the boat and it’s in the government’s interest to use her for the good of the country, so a coalition is possible,” said Aung Naing Oo.
“There’ll likely be dialogue between key figures. We’ve a history of failed state-building efforts and no one would be foolish enough to let things return to the old ways.”
Martin Petty reported from Bangkok; Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel