YANGON — Tin Oo is pushing 90, but much like another nonagenarian Southeast Asian politician, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the one-time commander in chief of the Myanmar army and co-founder of the National League for Democracy shows no sign of flagging.
Shoulders back, spine straight, and a booming delivery that makes a microphone superfluous, Tin Oo was phlegmatic about the NLD’s landslide victory in Myanmar’s Nov. 8 election. It was the first openly contested vote since the NLD won the 1990 elections, an outcome ignored by the ruling military.
“This is progress for our side,” Tin Oo said, displaying a mastery of understatement, even as election results showed the NLD taking around 80% of the 1,150 contested seats.
But for Nyan Win, another veteran NLD leader, the electoral sweep prompted some poignant reflection. “We are thinking about all the prisoners, all who worked for the NLD, all who suffered,” Nyan Win said. “We hope this election is vindication of all the years of struggle.”
Even with victory at hand, Tin Oo eschewed sentimentalism, insisting that the focus remains on what comes next for the party he co-founded with Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988, when Myanmar was in the throes of a savage army crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. “It is for change, it is for moving toward full democracy,” Tin Oo said of the electoral mandate handed to his party.
The NLD’s impending supermajority in parliament means it can nominate a president answerable to Suu Kyi, who is herself banned from the office under the terms of Myanmar’s army-drafted constitution.
The army will control a quarter of the parliamentary seats and powerful ministries such as defense and home affairs, but the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party has been reduced to a rump, with only 41 national-level seats, second behind the NLD’s 390.
Many in Myanmar wonder if Suu Kyi’s overtures to rival USDP factions — first meeting with President Thein Sein in 2011 at the outset of his presidency, and later appearing to side with Shwe Mann, the parliament speaker who was ousted as USDP chair in August — helped split the ruling party ahead of the elections.
But if Myanmar’s retired generals underestimated Suu Kyi, the same may not be true of those still in uniform. Aung Din, a Myanmar specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, believes that whatever Suu Kyi does first, she will have to tread carefully with the army.
“Both sides need to discuss many issues to be solved together in the future.” Aung Din said.
As party leader, Suu Kyi believes she has the right to operate “above the president” and work around a constitution that Tin Oo said the incoming NLD-led government will try to amend.
Suu Kyi’s remarks looked like a dig at the current government in Myanmar, which admits to consultations with Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the retired former dictator who some believe has been the power behind Thein Sein’s administration. But the election outcome will reinforce Suu Kyi’s belief in her right to run the government, since a vote for the NLD was seen all over the country as a vote for Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s late independence hero, Gen. Aung San.
Suu Kyi’s legendary bravery and stoicism — facing down soldiers who threatened to shoot her early in her political career, as well as narrowly evading assassination when the then-junta orchestrated a mob attack on her NLD convoy at Depayin, in central Myanmar, in 2003 — was surely in the memories of the millions of voters who backed her on Nov. 8.
“The NLD was always on the side of the people, always for change, for the rights of the people,” said Robert San Aung, a lawyer who lists dozens of NLD members he met during his 10 years as a political prisoner in Yangon’s Insein jail.
Numerous media reports featured comments from voters saying it did not matter to them who the other candidates were — or even who the NLD candidate was in their particular constituency — they were voting for Suu Kyi. “She is our mother, our best hope,” said Thida Lynn, one of thousands of red-clad supporters who cheered and waved outside party headquarters on Nov. 10, as the scale of the opposition victory became clear.
Winning on all fronts
As well as obliterating the USDP, the NLD routed the more than 50 ethnic minority parties running in Myanmar’s borderland states. That was a surprise to many, since the NLD was long seen as concerned more with the Buddhist Bamar majority, which makes up 60-70% of the country’s population of 51.4 million.
“We lost because of the image of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Sai Lynn Myat, a candidate for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy in Taunggyi, the regional capital of Shan State. “In the end, it was not a surprise,” he added, suggesting that Suu Kyi’s campaign appearance in Taunggyi was pivotal in persuading locals to opt for the NLD over Shan parties.
The SNLD was previously allied with the NLD, but Suu Kyi’s party angered many by running candidates against their former allies in minority regions, a strategy that paid off with hundreds of additional seats for the NLD.
The highhandedness, even ruthlessness, with which the NLD ran its campaign spoke clearly of the party’s determination to triumph in the election, with “we must win” as its mantra.
Khin Maung Swe, a former NLD leader who split with Suu Kyi five years ago to form the National Democratic Force after the NLD announced plans to boycott the junta’s 2010 elections, said: “There was nothing we could do but get drowned in an NLD wave.”
Leading up to the 2015 elections, Khin Maung Swe’s overtures to the NLD for his NDF members to rejoin the party were rebuffed by Suu Kyi, a reminder that “The Lady,” as she is known, is not only formidable but can be unforgiving.
Khin Maung Swe spent 16 years in jail as a political prisoner due to his work for the NLD, where he was a central executive committee member, but that was not enough to atone for the 2010 breach. “I don’t want to say anything about [Suu Kyi] now,” Khin Maung Swe said. The NLD “have to go ahead and try to rebuild the country.”
There is much speculation as to whom Suu Kyi will nominate for that job. The party has been criticized in the past for a reluctance to promote younger leaders or give more say to members in their 40s and 50s.
“Before it was like an emergency situation; the old leadership was needed, they could not work like a normal party,” Robert San Aung said, referring to the NLD’s struggles up to Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, which came exactly five years before the NLD secured an overall majority in the Nov. 8 election.
Younger candidates such as Zin Mar Aung, a longtime political activist, and Nay Phone Latt, a digital media activist, as well as prominent businesspeople such as Thet Thet Khine, won seats on the NLD ticket. The demands of governing may prompt Suu Kyi to look for younger ministers, such as Min Ko Naing, a former student activist who spoke at the NLD headquarters on Nov. 10.
Asked about the party’s talent and future priorities, Nyan Win said only that “rule of law” issues “will be the first priorities to be addressed by the new government.”Show