Myanmar’s army chief makes overture to Suu Kyi party after poll

Fans featuring Aung San Suu Kyi for sale at NLD party headquarters in Yangon.
Fans featuring Aung San Suu Kyi for sale at NLD party headquarters in Yangon.AFP

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar’s powerful army chief on Wednesday congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi’s party for “winning a majority” in landmark polls, agreeing to talks as her pro-democracy opposition appeared set for a landslide victory.

The comments carry significant weight coming from the from Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, the head of a military that ruled the country for half a century with an iron fist and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years.

Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party were poised for a massive victory after a 25-year struggle, had earlier called for talks on “national reconciliation”.

She sent letters to Min Aung Hlaing, President Thein Sein and parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, urging them to recognise the popular mandate.

In response, the army chief posted a message late Wednesday on the military’s official Facebook page, the preferred form of communication between the institution and the country it sealed off from the world.

“We congratulate the NLD for winning a majority of seats,” he said, adding he will meet Suu Kyi after the official results are declared by election authorities.

As the announcement was made, the NLD seemed poised for a massive victory after a 25-year democracy struggle, and on the brink of a majority after taking more than 85 per cent of the seats declared so far.

Although poll officials are yet to announce the NLD as winners, Myanmar’s balance of power, dominated for half a century by the army and its allies, may finally be shifting.

But Suu Kyi’s supporters remain anxious about how the army and its allies will respond to a mauling, with memories still keen of the 1990 election – won by the NLD but then swatted away by the junta.

Information Minister Ye Htut earlier also congratulated the NLD on its gains and vowed to “respect” the election outcome and “work peacefully in the transfer” of responsibilities to the winning party.

The NLD has scooped up 256 seats, 73 shy of an outright majority – but it was almost certain to smash through that marker.

In her letters, Suu Kyi said the “citizens have expressed their will in the election,” following the NLD’s blitz of the ruling party.

Analysts say difficult months lie ahead, with the army still in charge of key levers of power, protected by a constitution gifting it 25 per cent of all parliamentary seats as well as key security posts.

The document also blocks the 70-year-old Suu Kyi from becoming president despite her position as the democracy movement’s magnetic force.

But the swiftness with which Suu Kyi has reached out to the army shows a willingness to work with her former captors to cut through Myanmar’s tangled politics, they believe.

The NLD needs 67 per cent of the contested seats to form a majority. But the scale of the projected win will carry greater clout inside the new parliament.

Suu Kyi, who retained her seat in Kawhmu constituency, has vowed to rule from “above the president”, indicating she will use a proxy to sidestep the bar on her taking the top office.

Shwe Mann had been tipped as a compromise candidate for the presidency – although his star had waned inside the USDP before he too lost his seat.

Sunday’s election has left the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in tatters, taking just a handful of seats so far, with several party heavyweights bundled out of their constituencies by voters.

Election authorities have drip-fed results to the public, but the army chief’s intervention suggested events have moved beyond their timeframe.

‘Mother Suu’, as she is affectionately known, has said a democratic government would not seek to punish historic abuses by the military, but a massive popular mandate may prod them to sit down with their chief antagonist.

Stacked with former military men, the USDP has led a quasi-civilian government since 2011.

The party says it has guided the country through the major economic and social reforms that led to Sunday’s election, which is believed to have seen a massive 80 per cent voter turnout.

Its critics condemn it as a stooge of the army, which ruled as a junta for five decades, driving the country into penury and jailing opponents.