Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The 1990 Elections in Myanmar: Broken Promises or a Failure of Communication?

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The 1990 Elections in Myanmar: Broken Promises or a Failure of Communication?

Article excerpt

Whoever is elected will first have to draw up a constitution that will have to be adopted before the transfer of power. They haven't said how the constitution will be adopted. It could be through a referendum, but that could be months and months, if not years.

--Daw Aung San Suu Kyi interview with Dominic Faulder, AsiaWeek, 21 July 1989

Burma, redesignated Myanmar in 1989, was a somewhat fractious, though vibrant democracy from independence in 1948 until 1962 when General Ne Win, the head of the Armed Forces, seized power and ruled through a Revolutionary Council, which proclaimed the Burmese Way to Socialism. In 1974 a new constitution, similar to the People's Democracies of Eastern Europe, was approved in a national referendum and a new Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma established under the guidance of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).

However, popular dissatisfaction with one-party rule, with the socialist regime, and with growing economic problems resulted in some rioting in mid-1987, anti-government demonstrations in March 1988 led primarily by students, culminating in the bloody suppression by the military of widespread but peaceful protests on 8 August 1988. On 18 September 1988, fearful of still mounting chaos, the military seized power again, cracked down hard on rioters and dissidents, but nonetheless promised that multiparty democratic elections could be held and political parties set up.

In the ensuing general elections held in Myanmar (Burma) on 27 May 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD), whose founding Secretary-General Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (1) had been placed under house arrest on 20 July 1989 along with other leading members of the NLD, won a resounding victory, fielding 447 candidates and securing 392 of the 485 seats to the Pyithu Hluttaw or National Assembly. The NLD secured 80.82 per cent of the seats with 59.87 per cent of valid votes cast, 52.44 per cent of all votes cast (valid and invalid) and 38.11 per cent of all eligible votes that could have been cast.

The NLD's nearest rivals in terms of valid votes cast were the National Unity Party (NUP), the successor to the BSPP, which had dominated political life in the one-party state. The NUP, which most observers expected to do well, polled only 21.16 per cent of valid votes cast and secured only ten seats although fielding 413 candidates. They failed to capture a single seat in the capital Rangoon, even in districts with military cantonments. The remaining seats were won by other parties and independent candidates who were either in electoral alliance with the NLD or generally supported their aims. If anything, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's enforced absence from the electoral campaign enhanced the success of the NLD. She had become the national symbol of democratic opposition to military rule.

The statistical record (2) was as shown on the next page.

No. of constituencies                  492
No. of elections held                  485 (7 constituencies suspended
                                       for security reasons)
No. of eligible voters                 20,818,313
No. of votes cast                      15,112,524 (3)
No. of valid votes cast                13,253,606
No. of party candidates                2,209, of whom 479 were elected
No. of independent candidates          87, of whom 6 were elected
No. of registered political parties    235
No. of parties presenting candidates   93
                                                                 % of
                                                       No. of    Valid
                                No. of   % of 485      Valid     Votes
                                Seats    Contested     Votes      Cast

National League for Democracy    392       80.82     7,934,622   59.87
Shan Nationalities League for     23        4.74       222,821    1.68
  Democracy
Arakan League for Democracy       11        2. … 
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