Suu Kyi’s Party Declares Landslide as Myanmar Opens Up

Aung San Suu Kyi
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is surrounded by supporters and journalists as she visits a polling station in Kawhmu, Myanmar on April 1, 2012. Photographer: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Myanmar dissident Aung San Suu Kyi’s party said it is on pace to win every seat it contested in by-elections yesterday that may prompt the U.S. and European Union to lift sanctions and end the country’s global isolation.

The National League for Democracy won 43 of the 44 seats it competed for and leads in the vote count for the remaining district, spokesman Nyan Win said, giving it representation in the 664-member Parliament that will still be dominated by President Thein Sein’s party. The party didn’t field a candidate for one of the 45 legislative seats up for grabs.

“What is important is not how many seats we have won, although of course we are extremely gratified that we have won so many, but the fact that the people are so enthusiastic about participating in the democratic process,” Suu Kyi told several hundred people at her party’s headquarters today in Yangon. “We hope that this will be the beginning of a new era.”

The vote may open the door for the end of sanctions that prevent companies from General Electric Co. to Standard Chartered Plc from investing in the country of 64 million people bordering China and India. Thein Sein has moved to modernize Myanmar’s political and economic system since taking power a year ago, including a managed float of its currency set to take effect yesterday.

‘Long Process’

“It’s the beginning of a long process for Myanmar to join the Asian century,” said Douglas Clayton, founder and chief executive officer of Cambodia-based Leopard Capital, who plans to raise $100 million for a fund to invest in Myanmar once sanctions are lifted. “There will be very little reason to maintain sanctions after this election is accepted.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited the country formerly known as Burma in December, congratulated those who took part in the by-elections while cautioning that reforms could yet unravel. American sanctions ban investment in Myanmar and imports from the country, restrict money transfers, freeze assets and target jewelry with gemstones originating in the nation. The EU bans weapons sales and mineral imports.

“It’s too early to know what recent progress means and whether it will be sustained,” Clinton told reporters in Istanbul yesterday. “There are no guarantees about what lies ahead for the people of Burma, but after a day responding to a brutal dictator in Syria who would rather destroy his own country than let it move toward freedom it is heartening to be reminded that even the most repressive regimes can reform and even the most closed societies can open.”

House Arrest

Hundreds of supporters danced, sang and cheered outside the National League for Democracy’s Yangon headquarters last night as party officials displayed results on an electronic billboard. Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle, boycotted a 2010 election that ended five decades of direct military rule.

“We hope that all other parties that took part in the elections will be in a position to cooperate with us to create a genuinely democratic atmosphere in our nation,” Suu Kyi said today, adding that the party will meet with winning candidates and issue a comprehensive report on the elections later.

Official results have yet to be released. In 2010, they were announced several days after the election. Thein Sein’s ruling party and the military will still control more than 80 percent of parliamentary seats.

Myanmar invited a limited number of election monitors and journalists from the U.S., EU and neighboring countries. The by-elections “are a key moment in national reconciliation and should allow a substantial review of EU policy vis-a-vis Myanmar,” Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said in a March 28 statement.

‘Big Stick’

“It’s incumbent on the international community and particularly the countries that have been imposing sanctions to think about how to keep up the momentum and encourage change,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, a policy research organization. “Now is not the time to keep the big stick waving in the air.”

Myanmar’s political opening is moving in parallel with efforts to rewrite investment laws and unify multiple exchange rates that impede trade. The country moved to a managed float of its currency yesterday, scrapping a 35-year fixed rate to help grow the economy, according to the central bank.

“Moving to this managed float will bring a lot more stability,” said Andrew Rickards, chief executive officer of Singapore-listed Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd., which develops properties in Myanmar and has seen its shares rise almost sixfold in the past year. “It will mean everybody is on the same page,” he told Bloomberg Television today.

Honda Interested

Rich in natural gas, gold and gems, Myanmar represents one of Asia’s last untapped frontier markets, attracting investors such as Jim Rogers, the chairman of Rogers Holdings, who predicted a global commodities rally in 1999. Myanmar’s opening is “a game-changer,” Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch said in a March 29 research note.

Honda Motor Co. is interested in building a motorcycle plant in Myanmar, Hiroshi Kobayashi, president and chief executive officer of Asian Honda Motor Co., told reporters in Thailand on March 31. The decision will depend on circumstances in the country and international consensus, he said.

Suu Kyi, 66, remains a focal point of global perceptions about Myanmar. She has met a stream of visitors to her lakeside home in recent months, including Clinton and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague.

‘The Lady’

Known in Myanmar simply as “The Lady,” Suu Kyi gave her first political speech in 1988 when she returned to the country to care for her ailing mother after years of living overseas. She was first detained prior to 1990 elections in which her party won about 80 percent of seats for a committee to draft a new constitution. The military rejected the results.

Suu Kyi refused to accept an army-drafted constitution in 2008 and boycotted an election two years later in which Thein Sein’s party won a majority. A meeting between Suu Kyi and the president in August led to her party rejoining the political system.

In a 90-minute briefing on March 30, Suu Kyi said her party will accept the results if the will of the people is “fairly reflected.” She called irregularities during the campaign including vote-buying, incorrect voter lists and an incident where a candidate was almost hit with a betel nut “beyond what is acceptable for democratic selection.”

Military on Sidelines

Suu Kyi has appeared on state-run television and traveled throughout the country during the campaign period, falling ill on two occasions from exhaustion. Tens of thousands of people have greeted her at campaign stops around the country.

“We’re happy with what we’ve seen,” Chheang Vun, who is observing the election for Cambodia, said in Kawhmu district March 31. “Myanmar is now very different. In the three days we’ve been here, we have not seen military or police.”

Elections in three constituencies in Kachin state, home to a violent ethnic rebellion, were suspended due to security concerns. Myanmar’s army has displaced 75,000 ethnic Kachins since last June in an area along the Chinese border, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a March 20 report, underscoring the challenges that remain for Thein Sein as he aims to make peace with political rivals.

Thein Sein called on all political parties to accept the results in a March 24 speech published in the state-run New Light of Myanmar.

“Things have to change,” Thilsa Hla Htway, a journalist for 23 years, said last night in Yangon as Suu Kyi’s party celebrated. “It cannot stop now.’

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