The 2015 General Election in Myanmar: What Now for Ethnic Politics?

21 December 2015

Although the elections were peaceful, significant conflict continued in parts of the Shan and Kachin states. The expectations on the new government are extraordinarily high and all of the challenges facing the country remain as difficult to address as ever.

Despite huge challenges, election day in Myanmar passed almost entirely peacefully. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy triumphed in polls that were regarded by domestic and international observers as remarkably free from irregularities. The scale of the victory, and the apparent willingness of the current government and military authorities to ensure an orderly transfer of power in the coming months, opens up the potential for an optimistic new chapter in Myanmar’s post-independence history.

The hopes and expectations on the new government are extraordinarily high. Yet all of the challenges facing the country remain as difficult to address as ever. One of the most integral to the country’s future will be dealing with the legacy of decades of political divisions, ethnic exclusions and armed conflict that have continued since Myanmar’s independence in 1948. Although the elections themselves were peaceful, significant conflict continued in parts of the Shan and Kachin states, with attacks by the national armed forces (Tatmadaw) unusually intense both before and after the polls. Adding to this uncertainty, while the poll results reflected the nationwide popularity of the NLD, the scale of the NLD landslide under the country’s “first-past-the- post” electoral system has left most ethnic-based political parties with few seats, or none at all.

Key Points

  • The victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2015 elections was a resounding mandate for democratic change after decades of military-dominated government.
  • The scale of the victory in ethnic nationality communities across the country highlighted the hopes of all Myanmar’s peoples for the NLD to help achieve a new era of peace and democracy. Both domestic and international expectations are now high, and the incoming government will enjoy initial goodwill.
  • Formidable challenges remain in key aspects of social and political life. These include transition from military-backed government, political reform and the agreement of a nationwide ceasefire that includes all groups and regions of the country.
  • Despite the NLD’s success, concerns remain among different nationalities that, unless the NLD pioneers a political breakthrough, conflict and the marginalisation of minority peoples will continue. The perception is widespread that the present structures of national politics and Myanmar’s “first-past-the-post” electoral system do not guarantee the equitable representation of all nationality groups.
  • In the coming months, the successful transition to a new era of democratic governance and the agreement of an inclusive nationwide ceasefire could provide the best opportunity for ethnic peace and deep-rooted reform in many decades. It is vital that the different sides work cooperatively together rather than seek self- advantage.
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