YANGON, Myanmar » Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday hinted at a victory by her party in the country’s historic elections, and urged supporters not to provoke their losing rivals who are backed by the military.
In her first comments after Sunday’s elections, Suu Kyi told a crowd gathered at the National League for Democracy party that the results won’t be announced soon, “but I think you all have the idea of the results.”
“It is still a bit early to congratulate our candidates who will be the winners,” the 70-year-old leader said. “I want to remind you all that even candidates who didn’t win have to accept the winners but it is important not to provoke the candidates who didn’t win to make them feel bad.”
Officials across Myanmar were counting votes from the election in which the NLD is expected to finish with the largest number of seats in Parliament. But its road to forming a government remains filled with hurdles even though the country will move a step closer to greater democracy.
“DAWN OF A NEW ERA. Millions vote in historic election,” was the banner headline of New Light of Myanmar, a government-owned newspaper, on Monday, reflecting how much Myanmar has changed since the military gave up its half-century rule in 2011.
The government-run election commission will start announcing the results late Monday.
The vote was billed as the freest ever in this Southeast Asian nation, which has been run by a quasi-civilian government for the last five years in a scripted transition toward democracy. Many of the eligible 30 million voters cast ballots for the first time, including Suu Kyi (full name pronounced “ahng sahn soo chee”), the epitome of the democracy movement.
Still, the election drew criticism from international observers because about 500,000 eligible voters from the country’s 1.3 million-strong Rohingya Muslim minority were barred from casting ballots. The government considers them foreigners even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations. Neither the NLD nor the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party fielded a single Muslim candidate.
“There is no way the NLD will lose the election,” said 71-year-old Khin Maung Htay, listening to Suu Kyi’s speech. “I am so happy and I am not the only person, the whole country is happy. I think she is a perfect leader for our country and a woman of perfection.”
He also expressed the hope that the government will accept the defeat because they have “already promised us that they will accept whatever the result is.”
Although 91 parties contested, the main fight was between the NLD and the ruling USDP, made up largely of former junta members. A host of other parties from ethnic minorities, who form 40 percent of Myanmar’s 52 million people, are also running.
“I’m really happy because from what I heard the NLD is winning. I couldn’t sleep until 11 or 12 because I was looking everywhere for results,” said San Win, a 40-year-old newspaper vendor.
Still, the election will not bring full democracy to this nation. Myanmar’s constitution guarantees 25 percent of seats in parliament to the military, and was rewritten to keep Suu Kyi, the country’s most popular politician, from the presidency. But Suu Kyi, 70, has said she will be the real power behind the president and govern from behind the scenes.
She cannot run for president or vice president because a constitutional amendment bars anyone with a foreign spouse or child from holding the top jobs. Suu Kyi’s two sons are British, as was her late husband.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a statement Sunday, expressed hope that the election will move Myanmara step closer to democracy.
The junta, which took power in a 1962 coup, allowed elections in 1990, which Suu Kyi’s party won overwhelmingly. A shocked army refused to seat the winning lawmakers, with the excuse that a new constitution first had to be implemented — a task that ended up taking 18 years amid intense international pressure. New elections were finally held in 2010, but they were boycotted by the opposition, which cited unfair election laws.
The USDP won by default and took office in 2011 under President Thein Sein, a former general who began political and economic reforms to end Myanmar’s isolation and jump-start its moribund economy. But the USDP’s popularity, or lack of it, was really tested in a 2012 by-election in which the National League for Democracy won 43 of the 44 parliamentary seats it contested.
Because of the reserved places for the military in the 664-seat parliament, in theory the USDP, with the military’s support, need not win an outright majority to control the legislature. To counter that scenario, the NLD would require a huge win.
After the polls, the newly elected members and the military appointees will propose three candidates, and elect one as the president. The other two will become vice presidents. That vote won’t be held before February.
The military is also guaranteed key ministerial posts — defense, interior and border security. It is not under the government’s control and could continue attacks against ethnic groups. But critics are most concerned about the military’s constitutional right to retake direct control of government, as well as its direct and indirect control over the country’s economy.
Associated Press journalists Vijay Joshi, Robin McDowell, Grant Peck, Denis Gray and Jerry Harmer in Yangon and Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.