By Annie Gowen,
RANGOON, Burma — The party of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s longtime opposition leader, won a decisive victory Thursday in the first democratic election in years in the Southeast Asian nation long run by a military regime.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party has now secured enough seats in the Parliament seats to control the body and choose the country’s president, official results Friday showed.
The stunning victory was the culmination of lifelong battle for Suu Kyi, now 70, and her pro-democracy movement. She endured years of house arrest, at least two attempts on her life and separation from her husband and two sons to bring change to her country. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
[Opposition party projects victory]
As vote totals began coming in that forecast an NLD landslide, Suu Kyi on Thursday accepted a flurry of congratulatory calls and tweets from world leaders including President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In the morning, Suu Kyi spoke to Obama, whose administration has been one of the key allies in Burma’s sometimes rocky transition to democracy since 2011. After Burma’s generals began their process of democratic reform, the United States named its first ambassador in years, began a process of easing strict economic sanctions and increased aid.
The president commended Suu Kyi for her “tireless efforts and sacrifice over so many years” to promote a democracy in her country, according to a White House statement. An election of a new government could be “an important step forward in Burma’s democratic transition,” Obama noted. Obama on Thursday also called President Thein Sein of the country’s military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), officials said.
Suu Kyi, who was reelected to her seat in parliament this week, has already started laying the groundwork to govern the country, asking for meetings with Thein Sein, a former general, and other powerful military commanders.
Despite the trappings of the current civilian government, the military still tightly controls a quarter of parliament, key ministries, the police and vast business holdings. The commander in chief of the armed forces, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, said the military would hold talks with Suu Kyi after the election results are final.
Experts say that the weeks ahead will be an important test to see whether Burma’s generals — who ran the government for more than 50 years before taking steps to open up the country in 2010 — are really willing to see democracy flourish. The new parliament is scheduled to convene in January and to select a president early next year.
The last time Burma held free elections, in 1990, the ruling generals were stunned by the resounding defeat their party suffered at the hands of Suu Kyi’s NLD. They simply ignored the results and later set about drafting a new constitution that would enshrine a key political role for the military no matter the outcome of future polls.
[The last time Burma’s opposition stormed ahead in an election]
This time, the military and the ruling USDP were under no illusions and were “pretty realistic” about their election prospects, said Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. diplomat in Burma and now a senior adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace. But they decided that they “can manage it now,” Clapp said, and they are prepared to hand the reins of government to the opposition, confident that the 2008 constitution assures the military’s continued grip on key levers of power.
Suu Kyi, though barred by a constitutional provision from becoming president, will lead the party governing the country. It is a nation that has attracted vast inflows of foreign investment since 2010 — an estimated $7 billion — but where millions of people still live in poverty, around 70 percent of them working in agriculture.
As the military and its associates have enriched themselves by exploiting the country’s natural resources, such as copper and jade, much of the rest of the population has remained in impoverished isolation for decades. Government hospitals and schools have suffered from years of neglect. Suu Kyi often spoke of the country’s gaping inequities while on the campaign trail.
Burma, also known as Myanmar, has long been rife with sectarian tensions and armed ethnic conflict, and clashes between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims are on the rise. Thousands of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, considered stateless, remain trapped in camps after violent outbreaks in 2012, an issue hardly discussed by the main candidates. The Rohingyas were stripped of their voting rights before the election, to the chagrin of international election observers and other critics concerned that Burma’s progress might have stalled.
In the coming days, Suu Kyi will meet with Thein Sein to discuss “reconciliation,” according to party leaders. She wrote a letter to him to stress a need to respect the people’s will and a peaceful transfer of power — or, as she called it, “the peaceful implementation of the people’s desire.”
Thein Sein’s office Wednesday posted a statement on its Facebook page that said, “Our government will respect the people’s decision and choice and will hand over power as scheduled.”
William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.
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