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Why Burma’s Free Election Wasn’t All It Was Cracked Up to Be

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
April 3, 2012
The New Republic

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For a country that has experienced almost nothing but misery, abuses, and economic mismanagement since the army first took power in 1962, the scenes from Sunday's by-elections in the new, civilian Burmese parliament seemed nothing short of miraculous. The military's favored party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), took a paltry handful of seats. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under arrest just two years ago, won a parliamentary seat. And her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept to an overwhelming triumph, apparently taking 43 out of the 44 seats it contested. As the election results began to trickle out Sunday, thousands of supporters of the NLD gathered at the party headquarters in Rangoon to dance, sing all night long, share sweets, and await a speech by their leader. As one man watching the street celebrations told the Irrawaddy, an exile publication focusing on Burma, "Now the world will know who is who, and what is what"—meaning that now the world will know that the Burmese people still support Suu Kyi and the NLD, even after so many years of repression.

With the by-election having gone so well—international monitors had been allowed in, and despite harassment of NLD candidates before the poll, Election Day was overall judged free and fair—many developed democracies now seem ready to end their sanctions of Burma, resume significant aid programs to the needy country, and encourage sizable foreign investment. But while the by-elections were exciting, Sunday's vote was not the nail that ended military rule in Burma and solidified democracy. Instead, it can be seen more like the day when Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island: an important step on the path to democratic change, but hardly a sign that the military has stepped out of politics for good.

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